At 12:01 a.m. ET Monday, at the very end of arguably the most surreal weekend in the history of what is inarguably America’s most nonsensical sport, college football players informally unionized. That alone was a gobsmacking development, the stuff of fever dreams for players’ rights advocates for decades. But it was the guy pushing it forward who made it all the more remarkable.
Trevor Lawrence, the most recognizable collegiate athlete in the nation, hit “send” on a tweet that brought together two different player factions under one umbrella while announcing a desire to have a fall season and “ultimately create a college football players association.” Lawrence is the star quarterback at Clemson. His coach, $93 million man Dabo Swinney, once said that he would consider quitting the college game if players were compensated. To see a Clemson quarterback out in front of a Power To The Players movement is the richest of ironies.
It was late-night drama the likes of which is ordinarily reserved for Pac-12 games that end at 2 a.m. Intoxicating, dizzying … and ultimately futile, at least in the short term. The fall season is unlikely to be saved by a player push—not even a player push that gained the backing of the freaking president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, Monday afternoon.
Quoting Lawrence’s midnight tweet, the president wrote, at 1:20 p.m.: “The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled. #WeWantToPlay.” It took a lot of nerve for a guy who did as much as anybody to sabotage this season to tweet that—but, hey, if there is one thing Trump has in abundance, it’s nerve.
Political grandstanding aside, Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and dozens of others came together around two player hashtag movements: #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay. The former was largely a cudgel that was swung at the power structure of the sport, threatening boycotts in at least three conferences to ensure COVID-19 safety protocols were met, plus demands for shares of league revenue. The latter was an 11th-hour Hail Mary from players attempting to stop the gale-force winds blowing the sport toward a postponement or cancellation of the 2020 season.
This was an alliance that had to conflict many college football fans, and more than a few coaches and administrators. The #WeAreUnited group took on a lot of resistance, being labeled troublemakers and opportunists from defenders of the status quo. The #WeWantToPlay group was championed by some the critics of the former group because, well, fans want football. But they also want compliant, quiet college football players, which made that a tough line to walk.
Helping bring the two sides together was Ramogi Huma, head of the National College Players Association, an organization he’s headed for years as an advocate for player rights. Huma first made a name for himself in 2014 when he tried to get Northwestern’s team to unionize. That wasn’t successful, but he’s been undaunted and his profile has increased during the pandemic shutdown of college sports over the past five months.
So just past the stroke of midnight on a weekend that saw Northern Illinois—Northern Illinois!—essentially catalyze the end of the college football season, Dabo Swinney’s star player wound up in a virtual bro hug with Ramogi Huma. What kind of alternative reality have we landed on here?
This unprecedented athlete mobilization played out against a backdrop of administrative chaos, stripping bare the two great failures of the college sports model over the last decade:
1. A failure to terminate the flawed concept of amateurism in a timely fashion. If the NCAA had found a way to compensate players before now, the idea of proceeding with a football season would have been more defensible. With the players still largely prohibited from profiting off their athletic fame and prowess, asking them to accept the inherent risk that comes along with the pandemic is unseemly.
2. The lack of centralized and unified leadership. The NCAA itself and its president, Mark Emmert, have been strikingly irrelevant during this summer-long slog toward fall sports. That was never more apparent than this month, when a much-anticipated ruling from the Board of Governors on Aug. 4 was punted to various other NCAA governing bodies. The fate of Division I sports came to rest with the Division I Council, which by the end of this week almost certainly will have nothing left to decide. The conferences will have done all the hard work for it.
In those respects, this is not an alternative reality. It is very real and very much who we are. College football is America: both are bold and noble constructs riddled with such glaring inequalities and injustices that they make you wince, if you choose to acknowledge them at all. Most don’t, in the rush toward the next dollar.
Being a college football fan, like being an American, is fun if you don’t overthink it. When forced to confront ourselves, the fun is mitigated.
College football, like America, contains many uncomfortable truths. The revenue gap between haves and have-nots continues to widen. The labor force is exploited. And it’s been a summer of unrest, as the exploited find their voices and organize.
And college football, like America, has wildly failed at the national leadership level to get a handle on a pandemic, leaving local entities scrambling to find their own way.
The sport’s organizational dysfunction and conflicted nature played out in stunning fashion over the weekend. With nobody in charge and every conference trying to feel its way toward a decision on whether to play or postpone, somehow the Mid-American Conference wound up taking the lead.
The cash-strapped league is probably ninth out of 10 in the FBS in terms of clout and cache. Its members are the autumnal whipping boys of the Power 5, being pasted in road games in exchange for seven-figure guarantee checks, then exiled to play weeknight conference games on ESPN. But this was a whole different realm of MACtion.
The league was supposed to decide a schedule model last Thursday. When a meeting came and went without decision, eyebrows were raised. Word trickled out that Northern Illinois—coming off a 5–7 football season in 2019 and a non-factor in many other sports—was “the squeaky wheel,” according to a league source.
The Huskies said they weren’t going to play in the fall, period. And they wound up rallying other schools to that stance. How much of that was safety-based principle and how much of that was money-based panic is open to debate—both were undoubtedly part of the decision. But by the time the MAC held a Saturday morning presidents’ meeting, NIU had won the day and the fall season was canceled.
What happened thereafter is quintessential college sports: everyone else started to prepare to cancel fall football, because a lower-tier league did. Once one group of schools declared it unsafe to play, nobody else was going to pipe up and say, “Ah, screw your health concerns. We need the money and we’re going to play.”
In a revenue-addicted college sports industry, image and perception and academic prestige still matter. A lot. And college presidents aren’t big fans of appearing to let the athletic tail wag the academic dog. Thus months of scrambling for a path to play (and pay bills) wound up dissolving in a few hours of inflection.
For all the greed in college sports, they couldn’t go there.
So the Big Ten hit pause on its football workout schedule, and sources told Sports Illustrated that the league was preparing to cancel as well. (Truth be told, industry sources began asking pointed questions about the Big Ten’s plans nearly a full week ago.) After a Power 5 commissioner conference call Sunday, the writing was visible and in all-caps on every conference wall. “We have work to do that is no fun,” one of them told SI.
That work is underway. But it ran into the player movement in a startling way Sunday night, a last gasp from a group that many fans prefer to be seen and not heard. Then the president sounded off Monday.
It was all so very college football—chaotic and bizarre and dramatic and comical and maddening. And it was all so very American.