In the battle between the coronavirus and the NCAA as regards the possibility of a 2020 college football season, it would be entirely safe to take the pandemic and the points. Because the college pandemic paradigm has proven to be a disorganized mess. Back in May, NCAA President Mark Emmert said that the governing body would not mandate a return to college sports — a sensible point of view in which Emmert seemed to want to defer to health officials in each state.
The problem is that punting things back to the schools and conferences led to a predictable set of scenarios in which every school and every conference is operating on its own set of rules and assumptions. The Big Ten has vacillated between postponing its season and not. Ohio State head coach Ryan Day has vowed to “come out swinging” for the 2020 season, while Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh has cited “facts” in his own passion for a season to start sooner than later.
On and on it goes. As emergency meetings continue between the shot-callers for the Power 5 conferences, players are left “swinging” in a different way than Ryan Day put it. The postponement of the 2020 season, which now seems like an inevitability no matter what those shot-callers want to believe, will have 2021 draft prospects flowing in the breeze between playing their season in the spring, and possibly opting out of that risk-heavy environment in favor of preserving their value. A difficult choice for a lot of those players, whose stock will be affected no matter what, but in a world where everybody is looking for order out of chaos, any port in a storm will do.
How ready are we for this? Not very.
Last night, the Big Ten began hypothetically discussing what teams would do in the fall *if* the season got moved to the spring. It was contentious, as the bigger programs still want to play this fall. It marked one of the first hypothetical conversations about this topic.
— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) August 11, 2020
There’s also this: Multiple sources have told reporters that if there is a spring season, you can expect a heavy ration of opt-outs.
“We get these guys training specifically for the draft from the end of their college season through their Pro Days,” one NFL agent told SNY’s Ralph Vacchiano. “That’s 3-4 months. Now you want me to tell them it’s okay to wrap up their college season in May and run right off to the combine or a Pro Day — if they even have those? With no training or time to rest or heal?
“Why would any kid do that?”
Setting aside the larger problems of the “student-athlete” model in an NCAA that really does nothing to deserve it, we now have the specter of an entire era of college football players trying to make impossible career decisions with no help from their governing body. At no point in the history of college sports has the need for other options been more obvious.
And with that, we turn to the recent news about Duane “The Rock” Johnson, who, with business partners Dany Garcia and Redbird Capital Partners, purchased the bones of the XFL for $15 million. There’s no concrete re-start date for the league, which was showing decent interest numbers before the pandemic wiped everything out, but let’s say the XFL could gear up for spring football on its own.
At that point, the XFL has two options: It can poach minor-league NFL talent, and add on a few former big names to try and put butts in the seats… or, it could take a strategic look at those players who will absolutely shy away from the NCAA’s “ready, fire, aim” construct.
(Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)
What would that look like? Say the XFL reached out to guys like North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance, who is a man on an island after the Missouri Valley Football Conference announced its plans to move football to early 2021. Lance is in a position to transfer to a bigger school and continue his journey to NFL-readiness. But what it he was presented with a different opportunity in a professional league, with legitimate coaching and training, playing against other high-ticket college-level players, who also opted out of the NCAA model in favor of a new way? Lance would likely lose any further opportunity to play college football, but there are approximately eleventy billion reasons why that’s not in his best interest anyway.
The Spring League is already endeavoring to do something like this. Per ESPN’s Kevin Seifert, the league wants to create a true bubble (which the NFL decided was inefficient, despite its success in other leagues) in which 228 players over six teams would participate in an October tournament. CEO Brian Woods told Seifert that the league would be open not only to NFL castoffs, but to FBS players who have opted out or had their seasons cancelled. The plan is to have a bubble in Las Vegas where all players and staff would stay at the same hotel and train at the same facility. Woods said that the exercise would be funded internally, with an effort to reach out for broadcast revenue.
Not to steal the Spring League’s thunder — we should all support any organization that hopes to create a safer environment for its players and staff — but what would stop the XFL from doing the same thing on a larger scale? Certainly not money. Between Johnson, Garcia, and RedBird Capital Partners, there’s more than enough scratch to take early financial hits as things are set up, and thus put forth a longer-view plan that makes sense as an NCAA replacement. Johnson has a speculated personal net worth of $320 million, and the name to raise more capital. RedBird currently has $4 billion of assets under management, and a decided interest in acquiring other sports entities.
So, if the XFL wants to take the Spring League’s idea from a one-off tournament to a new idea in which college football players might actually have the rights for which they’ve been advocating (especially of late), it could be the thing that finally separates the XFL in its two previously failed attempts and sets it on the path to long-term success. More importantly, it could provide college-level and college-age players the opportunity to ply their trade and accentuate their professional development in an organized, hypocrisy-free zone.