After a college football season that we will never forget, Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide lifted the CFP national championship trophy Monday night in Miami Gardens, Fla.
Saban said afterwards that his seventh national championship was his “ultimate team”--not for what it achieved, which was considerable, but for what it overcame, which was historic.
I’ll concede here that there were thoughtful, well-meaning people who felt the 2020 college football season should not be played under any circumstances. The risk of trying to manage the virus just wasn’t worth it, they felt. College football, after all, is just a game.
I respected that point of view. I just didn’t agree with it. College football is a very important part of our social fabric and, as so many officials said, if the players want to play and it could be done with minimal risk, the people who run the sport felt they had to try.
There are so many people to thank for this season. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey was the leader of the sport before this happened. His ability to manage his conference to play 69 of 71 scheduled games and win the national championship makes him the unquestioned point person in the game as we move forward.
The coaches, athletics directors, support staffs at each school worked tirelessly amid the daily stresses and strains brought on by managing the virus. From mid-March on, it was an exhausting 24/7 job with no margin for error. You simply can’t thank those people enough.
But the people who deserve the lion’s share of the credit for the 2020 season taking place at all are the players.
It was the players who were asked to return to campus in June so that the schools could put them into a more controlled environment. And from that point on they lived a life of restrictions and constant testing.
In mid-August the narrative was emerging that the season should not be played. That to put unpaid college athletes on the field for the entertainment (and profit) of others was not the right thing for an educational institution to do.
That’s when players like Trevor Lawrence and Darien Rencher of Clemson and Justin Fields of Ohio State joined with other players to deliver this simple message: While those in a position of authority were figuring out what they thought was best for the players, somebody needed to actually ask the players what THEY wanted.
And they wanted to play.
The players from the Power Five conference had previously organized to pursue social justice goals. Those were ongoing. Now they wanted to make sure the players were heard on the subject of whether or not to actually play the 2020 season.
“We realized we (had) to do something quick,” Lawrence told ESPN back in August. “All the momentum was going the wrong way for us. We just started talking and we all agreed: The No. 1 priority for us was we all wanted to play.”
Lawrence and Fields, as two of the most high-profile players in college football, helped to start the #WeWantToPlay movement. The on-line petition quickly had 240,000 signatures.
Remember that on Aug. 11 the Big Ten announced that it was opting out of the 2020 season. The Pac-12 would quickly follow. The three remaining Power Five conferences—SEC, ACC, Big 12—would go it alone—or so it seemed at the time.
There is no doubt that if the players had not stepped up and thrown their support behind playing, it would have been difficult to have a full season. The Big Ten came back and began its season on Oct. 23 in no small part because its most high-profile player, Ohio State’s Fields, joined his fellow players in this movement back in August.
“We wanted to come together to have a voice so that people who are making the decisions can hear our voice,” Fields said.
Now when it comes to the players, there are still many issues that must be addressed, particularly when it comes to the economics and player freedom of movement of the sport.
There is the Name, Image and Likeness legislation that is still waiting to be passed by the NCAA that would allow players to generate income. The legislation that would allow every player to transfer once without having to sit out a season is also coming.
The players have made it clear that they want to continue to use their influence to enhance the cause of social justice. This generation of players now understands what they can accomplish if they present a united front.
So the end of the 2020 football season is really the beginning of a new era for college athletes. There are a lot of chapters still to write.
But for today, as we put a bow around this season unlike any other, let’s conclude with this: