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Power 5 players and college football administrators square off

The power brokers know they’re in trouble, but that might not change their plans for the fall.

Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

Two very different seismic events recently rattled the college football status quo. First, rumors started circulating that the Big Ten was on the verge of canceling its fall football season and pushing other Power 5 conferences to join them. Shortly thereafter, Justin Fields, Trevor Lawrence, Najee Harris, and other Power 5 players released a statement saying they wanted to play the 2020 season if certain conditions could be met:

That movement joined with #WeAreUnited, the Pac-12 player collective that issued its own demands to go forward with the season at the beginning of August. The two groups decided to join forces after being frustrated by having their messages pitted against one another.

#WeWantToPlay comes on the heels of months of inaction and delay by the traditional college football power brokers. But what does it mean for the future of the sport, and what do we think is going on behind the scenes? Godfrey and I decided to have a little chat about it.

Steven Godfrey: My phone has been filled with conspiracy theories the last 24 hours. I think that’s because people are having a hard time processing this amount of change in the sport and the real reasons for these changes aren’t particularly fun to talk about.

More than a few people I’ve spoken with believe the push to postpone and/or cancel the 2020 college football season (along with all fall sports) is not entirely based on the COVID-19 pandemic. A lot of people in the industry believe the Big Ten orchestrated the movement (more on that in a second) to prevent an organized player “union” making demands of schools and conferences.

One source told me “They [players] have more leverage than ever in this moment. They could put everyone over a barrel right now.”

That’s both nonspecific and a little silly, but I don’t doubt the fear. In fact, I believe fear is the driving motivator of the entire decision making process and lack thereof surround college football and COVID-19 dating all the way back to February.

And if we’re entertaining conspiracy theories, my current favorite (although I believe it to be untrue and merely circumstantial) is that the statement-graphic merging the #WeWantToPlay and #PlayersUnited movements was released after baiting a particular group of pundits who want the season to happen no matter what while also advocating against player compensation or organization. It’s interesting to see the reaction to what some thought were divergent ideas.

I’m guessing you don’t believe any of these either?

Ryan Nanni: You can talk me into halfway believing most of those theories, actually, but it’s hard to say that any of them are the sole reason behind everything that’s transpired over the last couple days. Conference and school leaders are likely concerned about long-term liability, and they’ve probably seen enough troubling anecdotes from elementary and high schools reopening and immediately seeing outbreaks to make them wonder if this can work with colleges open.

The players struck at a very interesting time. With the season on the rumored brink of collapse, they’ve made a play for the swing voters of college football, the people who want games but don’t feel strongly either way about player compensation or representation. #WeWantToPlay makes the players the good guys to that group - they’re trying to save the season and in exchange they have some fairly mild demands. Whether or not they pump faked a media subgroup (I’m not convinced they wanted to do that, because I don’t think we in college football media are as important as we usually think we are), they’ve shifted the narrative.

That comes with a cost, though. #WeAreUnited, the Pac-12 movement that started on August 2, brought a lot of big demands to the table, but it also had a big threat: the possibility of a boycott. Leverage like that forces the power brokers to listen, or at least pretend to listen. But #WeWantToPlay has the opposite stance. This proto-union is partially premised on wanting to play when their negotiating opponents want to shut things down. It feels like that makes their road much harder.

Hey, here’s a fun thing: the graphic for this new set of demands was made by a Washington State player. Pretty interesting considering what’s happened in Pullman over the last week, no?

SG: And lo and behold, here come the coaches in support of #WeWantToPlay.

Even the biggest critic of the coaching community would admit the emerging #WeWantToCoach is at least in some part an effort to preserve a lot of folks’ jobs. Without a season, every athletic department will likely cut positions. A head coach under contract will be fine, but as you work down the org chart to analysts, graduate assistants and first-year assistants, it’s all at-risk.

So while I think a lot of coaches are trying to reposition their industry’s perception, a lot of them are just trying to save as many subordinates’ jobs as possible.

Ultimately I think the marriage of #WeWantToPlay with #WeAreUnited is very smart, because as you mentioned, it flips the basic narrative from “those players want money and will boycott playing to get it” to “the players are telling presidents and administrators they want to play.” It’s very simple, but we’re watching a lot of different groups inside and outside the sport try to capture hearts and minds at the moment. None of this will likely affect college football playing games in 2020, but there’s long been a mental block with the public at large accepting college athletes should be compensated, or even organized.

Can I very quickly indulge my bias and note that this movement by Power 5 players will only further the chasm between the Power 5 and Group of 5? Maybe we’re not supposed to talk about this yet, but if there’s any success to grant P5 players compensation, benefits, etc., but not the poorer Group of 5’s and below, we’re really, really, really talking about two different sports now.

RN: That’s the one part of #WeWantToPlay I’ve really stumbled over. None of the demands pertain to revenue sharing, which would presumably be one of the biggest challenges of a players association that deals with both Texas and Bowling Green. If you’re mostly focused on players having a say in what happens to them and uniform health protocols, why wouldn’t you include as many players as possible?

Some of that could just be the nature of organizing a disorganized group; one of the organizers, Clemson running back Darien Rencher, said on Twitter he’d like to get players outside the Power 5 on board. Maybe that’ll be the case in short order, but it speaks to a larger obstacle these efforts are going to face.

A labor movement that doesn’t have a pretty meaningful quorum will have a lot of trouble being a negotiating force, because the NCAA and the conferences and the schools don’t want to come to terms with one set of 50-100 players only to turn around and deal with new demands from the next 50-100 and so on. In our excitement over #WeWantToPlay and #WeAreUnited – and it is very exciting that players are starting to coalesce like this – we tend to gloss over that these are not anything close to unanimous or supermajority movements. In both cases, you saw athletes who weren’t signed on send out messages roughly to the effect of “I appreciate what these guys are trying to do but they don’t speak for me.” That fracturing corrodes your ability to present a unified front.

Without it, what’s the incentive for schools or conference to negotiate with you? Bad PR? Man, they’ve been getting their asses kicked in that department for years and it’s yet to slow them down.

Godfrey, I’m going to let you have the last word with the hardest question. Right now, it looks like the Big Ten is about to shut everything down, despite the emergence of #WeWantToPlay. So can this new movement change what happens to fall football in 2020?

SG: Nope. And I don’t mean to be glib. I’m seeing ideas and actions I’ve written and reported on for years finally emerging in public and it’s surreal. But the decision making matrix has only one node: liability.

There’s no way to prevent a massive outbreak that could easily and inarguably be traced back to the playing or preparation for a college football game. I think that’s the most pressing issue for the decision makers. COVID-19 is the real and dangerous monster in 2020, but player organization, NIL, compensation and health care are the doomsday on the horizon for this sport’s power brokers. Shutting down 2020 would allow for COVID-19 to be defeated, most likely, while giving those in power time to scramble an effort to either negotiate, rebuke or manipulate the very real, very fundamental changes coming in labor for this sport.