Sometime after 9 p.m. ET Saturday, several Penn State football players began tweeting a hashtag: “#IWantToPlay.” Earlier in the day, star Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence tweeted that the Tigers “want to play.” On Friday, Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland put a message on Twitter backing the safety protocols put in place at the school and the Big Ten.
It was a noteworthy collective statement from some high-profile players at Top Ten programs. And it underscored the angst of the situation in college football, as everyone is left twisting and waiting for a resolution of whether there will be a 2020 season.
The resolution is likely to be a grim one. What the Mid-American Conference set in motion Saturday by postponing its fall season is highly likely to be continued by others in the coming days. As one well-placed source told Sports Illustrated Saturday, “I think by the end of the week the fall sports will be postponed in all conferences.”
Regardless of your feelings on whether they should play, you can certainly empathize with the athletes’ desire to play. This is a brutal August limbo, which followed July limbo and June limbo.
“It’s definitely hard to know there’s no clear answer,” standout Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth told SI. “We are waiting and on edge. But until there is, we want to let the NCAA, the Big Ten and people in other conferences know that if we have the proper protocols in place, we want to play.”
This is also a message that offers a more holistic view of the college football landscape. In recent days, the voices heard from players were often those who had formed united groups to protest conditions in the Pac-12, Big Ten, Mountain West and American Athletic conferences. Or they were the dozens of players who decided to opt out on the season, trying to safeguard their personal health or potential professional future.
Those players got a lot of headlines. By the end of last week, another group wanted to speak up. Lawrence’s tweets on both Saturday and Sunday drew a lot of attention as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. In a tweet on Sunday night, he appeared to call for the formation of a student-athlete union in tweeting out a list of demands along with the #WeWantToPlay hashtag.
But he was far from alone.
Freiermuth said that he, quarterback Sean Clifford, and other members of the Penn State team’s leadership council began discussing making a statement after practice Saturday. At that point, the MAC had taken action and the Big Ten had paused its progress toward practicing in full pads. It seemed like a now-or-never moment to make a collective stand.
“We wanted to come out with a positive statement,” Freiermuth said. “We feel comfortable playing. We feel safe at Penn State, safe going into the (football) building and safe going to practice.”
Freiermuth noted that his parents, Dianne and John, are the presidents of the football program’s parents association. They’ve been involved in multiple meetings to ensure that protocols are established and enforced.
Neither did the team. The leadership council set standards as soon as players arrived for summer workouts: no bars, no parties, no hosting of parties. If you feel sick, stay away from workouts and consult the medical staff. Stay home when possible. “We have worked hard to not put each other in harm’s way.”
Ultimately, Freiermuth said, about 20-25 Nittany Lions posted on social media Saturday night and Sunday. His personal statement: “Since day one coming back to campus the Penn State Football staff and medical experts have put our health and safety first, above anything else. The guidelines put into place keep us safe while playing the game we love. We are ready to play and we want to play.”
This was not an attempt to start a squabble with players opting out, a group that includes Freirmuth’s teammate, star linebacker Micah Parsons. Or to raise issues with players who have talked about a boycott. Nor was it an attempt — at least at Penn State — to “push back” at the media, an ignorant notion circulated by Fox Sports broadcaster Joel Klatt.
“Obviously, players who opt out have a reason,” Freiermuth said. “And maybe some of those are personal. You have to respect that. Everyone on the team is going to support them. And if players think they need to boycott and ask for better protocols to feel safe, they need to do it.”
As for the rest of the college football player population?
“Control what we can control,” Freiermuth said. “We still feel positive and we’re eager to play. It doesn’t even feel like COVID exists when we’re on the practice field.”