College Football’s Great Unraveling

The pandemic is bringing the sport face-to-face with its deepest flaws.

Shutterstock / Paul Spella / The Atlantic

This week, the bottom fell out of college football. The future of the fall season had been wavering for more than a month as the coronavirus continued to burn through much of the United States, and on Tuesday, the Big 10, the conference that comprises the Midwest’s major football programs, was the first to topple. It canceled its fall season, and a few hours later, the Pac-12, which represents major programs on the West Coast, made the same call.

Forgive me for trying to put these cancellations in their bizarrely complicated context. The Big 10 and Pac-12 are two of the five regional conferences that make up college football’s top tier as the Power 5, which together play for the sport’s most prestigious, but certainly not its only, national championship. (Central Florida fans, please don’t email me.) The schools of the SEC, Big 12, and ACC, which cover the Southeast, Great Plains, and East Coast, respectively, are moving ahead with football for now, game schedules redrawn.

The reasoning behind the Big 10’s and Pac-12’s decisions to shut things down is both obvious and inscrutable. Both conferences cited ongoing concerns about COVID-19’s impact on athletes’ health. But they haven’t explained what has changed since last week, when the Big 10 released a new, supposedly coronavirus-proof schedule. (When reached for comment, the Pac-12 referred to its previous public statement on the matter. The Big 10 did not respond.)

The three remaining leagues presumably have the same information as the Big 10 and Pac-12, yet they have come to different conclusions, plunging the sport into an unprecedented upheaval. “Evaluations are on-going and will continue into the foreseeable future,” Bob Burda, a spokesman for the Big 12, told me via email. “If at any time our scientists and doctors conclude that our institutions cannot provide a safe and appropriate environment for our participants, we will change course.” If some conferences manage to play, they’ll tap into television deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars, gaining an advantage in recruiting high-school players and luring stars away from suspended leagues. (The SEC and ACC did not respond to requests for comment.)

In nonpandemic times, top-tier college football’s decentralized chaos is actually part of the sport’s charm. The Power 5 is only the tip of an iceberg that includes hundreds of teams organized into multiple conference tiers, as well as those that refuse to align with a conference at all. This general lawlessness gives the sport an idiosyncratic regionalism: College football is barely noticed in some states, and inspires a near-Pentecostal fervor in others. Whereas professional football is shellacked with benign corporate marketability, in college football, a touchdown celebration that mimics a urinating dog can play a role in removing Confederate iconography from Mississippi’s state flag.

This decentralization has also allowed college football’s leaders to maintain a dangerous status quo. In exchange for a long shot at fame and riches in the NFL, college students play for free in a system often criticized as unfair and damaging, many of them for schools that collect an annual revenue of tens or hundreds of millions of dollars. Schools and conferences operate within this structure with relative independence and impunity, and with little requirement to safeguard the future health and safety of their players.

Conference leaders tend to argue that they can’t do anything to change this system, because of how college sports’ governing body, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, adheres to the principle of amateurism. NCAA regulation prohibits universities from paying students or granting them education-disrupting protections. But the NCAA itself exists only because the leagues consent to be regulated by it. If conference commissioners and the leaders of football’s most powerful programs wanted something else, they almost certainly could have it.

Now, given months to prepare for competition, college football has buckled under the weight of its own nonsense. Hands tied by the NCAA, colleges can’t provide athletes with the bubble-style protections and benefits that have made some pro sports a pandemic success. The pandemic has exposed the outrageous hypocrisy of amateurism. College football is unraveling before our eyes.

The concept of amateurism has been around since college football’s beginning, in the late 1800s, but college football has never had the type of purity that the term implies. In the sport’s early decades, as the historian Taylor Branch has detailed in The Atlantic, players were usually hired to play and barely, if at all, disguised as regular college students. They frequently died of injuries sustained during games. In the early 1900s, the NCAA was founded to assure fans that the game was committed to cleaning itself up, but the organization lacked meaningful power until the 1950s. During that era, it took control of college football by consolidating the sport’s TV rights and inventing the concept of the “student-athlete”—the idealistic notion that players were simply exceptional young adults, playing for the love of the game—which helped schools defeat liability claims from players who had been catastrophically injured or killed while playing.

The NCAA’s role in modern football is primarily to regulate what athletes can do and receive while enrolled in school. It sets limits on the frequency and conditions of practice, and restricts “improper benefits,” including paychecks and cash bonuses. The NCAA asserts that this oversight is necessary because amateurism is what makes college football special. Paying players, the NCAA’s defenders argue, would open a Pandora’s box of corruption and destroy the game’s parity, consolidating success at a few well-funded programs. It’s difficult to maintain any pretense of parity, though, when the University of Alabama has won four out of the sport’s past 10 national championships, and Clemson University, its frequent opponent in playoff games, has won two of the others. (An NCAA spokesperson referred me to its protocols for playing in the pandemic, but did not comment further on other topics.)

Usually, the economic component of the NCAA’s amateurism enforcement is the subject of the widest public scrutiny. Ensuring that athletes aren’t compensated often means punishing players for things such as accepting gifts or signing autographs sold by memorabilia dealers. These rules get absurdly granular: For years, schools could give athletes bagels, but not free cream cheese for their bagels. Once, three players at the University of Oklahoma were required to donate several dollars each to charity for eating too much pasta. Over time, that level of micromanagement has become more and more out of step with fans’ attitudes toward players. Recent polls have shown that people largely have come around to the idea that, at the very least, players have a right to profit from their name and likeness.

According to Nathan Kalman-Lamb, a lecturer at Duke University whose work focuses on sports, race, and labor relations, these economic concerns sometimes overshadow a more dire problem of amateurism, however. “The most serious ramifications for college players relate to health and safety, a situation only exacerbated during the pandemic,” he wrote via email. “They are not governed by occupational health and safety provisions, nor do they have employer-provided health insurance.”

As summer workouts continue for some football players, many teams have declined to release information about how many coronavirus cases they have on their roster. At Colorado State University, coaches have reportedly pressured players to lie about symptoms or threatened them with reduced playing time if they quarantine according to safety standards. At Florida State University, a group of wide receivers went public this morning with allegations that the football program was not adhering to testing protocols or being transparent with players. (Both CSU and FSU have denied the accusations and asserted that their programs are safe for players.) With early indications that at least 10 players in the Big 10 have developed COVID-19-linked myocarditis, a rare heart condition that can lead to cardiac arrest and premature death, many university administrators seem worried about their institutions’ long-term liability in subjecting athletes to that risk.

To move forward with playing while keeping athletes safe, colleges do have a model in American sports they could follow: the NBA bubble. Professional basketball’s restricted conditions—rules for athletes about housing, movement, and socialization in exchange for fair pay and constant testing for the coronavirus—have yielded the safest results of any league playing in the U.S. so far.

But the NCAA policies on amateurism that football programs have so often benefited from have now painted colleges into a legal corner. In football-roster outbreaks at schools such as Kansas State and LSU, infections have been mostly traced back to players’ lives as regular college students, socializing at bars and house parties. As more students return to campuses in the coming weeks, universities could, in theory, restrict players from taking part in those elements of campus life—not to mention attending classes, as is required for them to continue playing. But a barrage of lawsuits about pay and liability have put the NCAA on the defensive. Any special treatment players receive—removing them from conventional college housing, giving them special clearance to do classes online, restricting their access to bars and parties—is potential ammunition in court. It’s also potential ammunition for students, staff, and faculty: If their university admits it can’t keep football players safe in regular campus conditions, why is everyone else being forced into them?

And so, football players keep playing, with “no meaningful protections from harm,” according to Kalman-Lamb. In the past, college football players have tried to unify to improve their conditions, most recently in 2014, when players at Northwestern University formally requested labor-union representation. But the effort was shot down the next year by the National Labor Review Board. That has left players without a formal way to lobby for fair treatment, as their professional counterparts have done in order to set the conditions of league “bubbles.”

Kalman-Lamb noted that players can also be exposed to a long-term health risk when a pandemic isn’t threatening their safety. Usually, the biggest long-term health concern for football players is chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a debilitating degenerative brain disease that’s caused by repetitive collisions and found in many retired football players. The NCAA has been widely accused of downplaying or obscuring the severity of the condition and its link to football. (In response to concerns about CTE, the NCAA has redrawn football’s rules to penalize players for some types of helmet-to-helmet collisions, and it funds research into concussions.)

The safest thing for all involved in college athletics would be to uniformly cancel sports—to cancel in-person college itself—until transmission of the coronavirus can be brought under significantly better control almost everywhere in the country. Until then, players will be at risk. But if conferences are intent on playing, Power 5 universities could reject the dangers of amateurism by, at the very least, paying players a fair wage and providing expanded health benefits for their perilous and near-limitlessly profitable work.

The math on how this could be done has been run innumerable times over the years. As critics often point out, schools use myriad accounting tricks to make the legal argument that their athletic departments don’t have much money on hand at all—among them, pouring the profits into facilities upgrades like weight-room DJ booths and indoor waterfalls in locker rooms. To get an expanded benefits system fully up and running for all college athletes would require some time and logistical heavy lifting, but if they wanted to, schools could start doing so right now.

For their part, many players seem to realize that their status as amateurs is endangering both their safety and the viability of the football season. In the past two weeks, large groups of players in the Big 10 and Pac-12 have released lists of safety and compensation demands, threatening not to play if an agreement couldn’t be reached. “We want to play the game we love and have given so much of ourselves to, but we want to do it in a safe way,” Elisha Guidry, a defensive back at UCLA, wrote in a letter signed by 13 players from the Pac-12. “Every player that puts on these pads to play this game is a person with their own family, own friends, own passions, and own purpose that is greater than football.”

Kalman-Lamb and his two co-hosts on the End of Sport podcast have argued that by canceling the season, those two conferences have effectively punted the necessity of dealing with a nascent labor movement to the spring, at the earliest. If pandemic conditions have improved by then, coaches, conference commissioners, and university presidents might regain more power in setting the terms of any negotiations.

Even before college football’s house of cards started to fall this week, though, there was some early indication that athletes would not be deterred. Following player demands from the Big 10 and Pac-12, on Sunday night, some of the game’s most prominent players from other conferences, including the Clemson University quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the Ohio State University quarterback Justin Fields, tweeted out a message of support—both for finding a way to have a season, and for the right of players to form an association that would be able to negotiate playing conditions on their behalf. There was no explicit backlash among the sport’s leadership—some coaches and athletic directors eventually tweeted in support of the players’ demands, which were not as lengthy or detailed as those set forth by the Big 10 or Pac-12 groups.

College football was giddy, unexpected chaos again, as it always has been. The players want to play. Now they wait and see if those in power will bother to listen.