The headline: Top NFL prospects for 2021 want to play college football in 2020. The deeper message: They want to do it in a way that is safe and appropriate.
Multiple premier players, headlined by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, tweeted a message under the logo of the Power 5 conferences and the hashtags #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay.
“We all want to play football this season,” the message states, followed by a list of demands. “Establish universal mandated health & safety procedures and protocols to protect college-athletes against COVID-19 among all conferences throughout the NCAA. Give players the opportunity to opt out and respect their decision. Guarantee eligibility whether a player chooses to play the season or not. Use our voices to establish open communication and trust between players and officials; ultimately create a College Football Players Association [with] representatives of the players of all Power 5 conferences.”
It’s not an unconditional statement of a willingness to play under whatever standards the individual schools and conferences would adopt. The players want to do it in a way that is safe, with the kind of comprehensive approach that the various schools to date have shown neither the ability nor the inclination to adopt.
It’s August 10. Is there time to give them the things they want? Is there a willingness to commit to establishing a College Football Players Association?
For decades, the major universities have benefited from a model premised on the athletes providing extremely valuable services without getting anything close to fair value in return. In theory, they get “an education.” In practice, football is their job. Some institutions take the educational aspect more seriously than others. Others treat the educational aspect as a chore, a hassle, a distraction from why the players are there.
The best of the best players are there because the NFL has created an artificial barrier to entry for three seasons after high school. The rest are there under the vague premise that, if they do everything they’re supposed to do while playing not for a paycheck, they’ll eventually get a chance to play football for money.
For the college football system, this isn’t quite the reckoning that already is long overdue. But it’s the kind of step toward recognizing player rights in a way that could eventually level the playing field.
As the Power 5 conferences take their last swing at chasing the billions that college football would generate for 2020, the powers-that-be now need to ask themselves the broader question of whether they’re willing to empower the athletes more than they ever have been. Thus, while some will view this as a last-ditch effort by the players to salvage the season, the strings attached to the broader message (if the players aggressively press for those things) could ultimately be the tipping point toward pulling the plug, since the long-term costs of giving the players greater say could cost a lot more than one lost season.
The more prudent approach would be listen to the players and to give them what they want. The problem continues to be that it may be far too late — and also far too expensive — to implement the measure the players are seeking in exchange for playing this year.
Top prospects from Power 5 conferences speak out, in unison originally appeared on Pro Football Talk