How a star-studded Zoom unified a 'hail mary' attempt to save college football season

The “Hail Mary” began with a GroupMe DM. Clemson running back Darien Rencher sent it Sunday night. Stanford defensive end Dylan Boles received it. Trevor Lawrence soon joined them on a FaceTime call. And before long, with college football season creaking toward collapse, they’d convened the most star-studded Zoom meeting in the sport.

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields? Present.

Alabama running back Najee Harris? Check.

Oregon lineman Penei Sewell? On board.

Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard? Yep.

A dozen players gathered because they, like hundreds of college athletes who spoke up over the weekend, want to play football in 2020.

And because players from the Pac-12 and Big Ten, who’d led separate movements demanding stronger coronavirus protections and other benefits, also want to play football.

Yet as they watched #WeWantToPlay accelerate on social media, they saw a troubling trend. They saw polarization and artificial conflict. “We felt like the media and the fans were kind of pitting the two movements against each other,” Boles told Yahoo Sports.

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields were two of hundreds who shared a unified statement: "WeWantToPlay". (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields were two of hundreds who shared a unified statement: "WeWantToPlay". (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

In reality, players realized, the two movements could blend into one. Michigan cornerback Hunter Reynolds, who’d led the Big Ten movement, spoke with Rencher individually. And they found, Reynolds said, that “what [#WeWantToPlay advocates] were saying was a similar message to what we were saying, just conveyed a little differently.”

So the players, with representation from each Power 5 conference, gathered via Zoom. Reynolds had prepared a preliminary statement. As a group, they refined it. “We need to make this clear and concise,” Boles said they decided. They needed bullet points, “something we can throw on a graphic, and make it easily distributable.”

In around 30 minutes, they settled on the bullets. They wanted to play. But they wanted universal COVID-19 protocols, and freedom for players to opt out, and eligibility guarantees. And most notably, they wanted a players union.

Then they turned to Washington State defensive lineman Dallas Hobbs, who was on the Zoom. Hobbs, a talented graphic designer, pulled up Photoshop and got to work. “20 mins to save the world,” he later tweeted. “That’s all the time they wanted to give me.”

And Hobbs, from his desk in Pullman, Washington, delivered in crunch time. He aligned the five Power 5 conference logos atop his screen. Then “WEAREUNITED X #WEWANTTOPLAY.”

One minute past midnight ET, Lawrence hit send.

The words were not crafted with the input of every Power 5 football player. “This wasn't necessarily a statement that encompassed the feeling of all athletes,” Reynolds said. “It was more so a statement that, if a player chose to, he could put out to support.” And many — football players and others, from Power 5 conferences and elsewhere — have.

The National College Players Association supported them too. A union would shake college athletics to the core. But the players on the Zoom, Boles and Reynolds said, weren’t hesitant about calling for one. “We wanted to make sure players felt empowered, and had the opportunity to use their voice,” Boles said. “It definitely needs to happen.” And Reynolds: “I think everyone felt that was necessary, just to have representation.

“And for me, personally, that representation needs to stretch across all sports and all divisions in college athletics,” Reynolds continued. “It's not just Power 5 football, it needs to be Group of 5, Ivy League, the entire FCS, Division II, Division III; football, basketball, soccer, softball, track and field, etc.”

What comes next, however, is unknown. Athletes still don’t have a formalized voice, no matter how loudly they speak. The season remains on the brink. Power 5 athletic directors reportedly held an emergency meeting Sunday. The players mobilized hours later. Boles likened their organizing to “assembl[ing] the pseudo-Avengers of college football at the last minute." Rencher described their statement as a “Hail Mary to win ‘the game’ hopefully.”

What they undoubtedly healed, though, was that externally manufactured division, between two movements with similar aims. They’ve “established unity,” Boles said. As Rencher tweeted: “All on the same team with this!”

And they clarified a misconception. “There's kind of been this sentiment that if a player spoke out about wanting better procedures, better safety standards, that he didn't want to play,” Reynolds said. “Or if a player opted out, that he or she didn't want to play. ... As college athletes, we put hours, we put years into honing our craft in our sport. We all do want to play. We just want to play safely.”

And they want a voice. “We just want to make sure players are being taken into account,” Boles said. “Because every decision that was made thus far regarding the season, in each respective conference, had very little [or] no player input. We wanted to change that.”

Boles spoke with Yahoo Sports in the wee hours of Monday morning, after a whirlwind weekend. “The series of events that transpired in two hours was honestly pretty insane,” he said of Sunday night. “But it was amazing that it came through. Now we've all come to the agreement that we can work together, to really create something that should've been done a long time ago. Now we finally have the power to truly do it.”

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