I’d like to see college football play its season. If it’s safe to do so, of course. If players feel comfortable, of course. If it can be done amid reasonable risks, then I’d like to see the Pac-12 suit up, kick off, and make us forget for a few hours that we’re mired in this blasted pandemic.
Sport is a wonderful escape.
But today, I’m writing about the players who feel trapped by it.
Jaydon Grant, an Oregon State defensive back, for example. He walked on in Corvallis a few years ago, worked hard, and serves as proof of everything that is right with college athletics. Grant wanted to get on the field and play so badly that he once crashed into a metal fence after breaking up a pass at practice.
He left in an ambulance that day.
Grant keeps coming back, though. Through shoulder surgeries, and disappointments, and through several changes in head coaches in his time at Oregon State. Also, after a lot of losses. But what’s stopped Grant cold are concerns about whether college football is making a terrible mistake by pushing so hard to play games this season.
“In what aspect is football essential … tell me how many lives college football is saving?” Grant asked.
Grant said much more this week in a lengthy interview. I was struck by his resolve. He really does want to play, but he’s also aware that the primary reason the Pac-12 Conference needs him on the field is that his university is looking at losing $50-plus million in revenue if games aren’t played.
“They’ve even said there’s a possibility we won’t finish the season, that might have to resume in the spring,” Grant told me. “In my eyes, you’re projecting that something is going to happen, that people are going to get sick or this pandemic is going to get worse. There’s so much uncertainty out there, there’s so much risk.”
As a result, he’s prepared to exercise his right to sit out this season. His coaches are telling him they support him and are proud of him. And that announcement was met publicly by reaction that can best be described as a splintered mess.
One football fan called Grant “a snowflake.”
Another offered, “If he gets COVID … he is out for two weeks and then back on the field. … This isn’t Ebola.”
Another said Grant should get back to his job on the field, “Is my job as operations manager for grease-trap pumping essential to saving lives?”
Lots of people supported Grant, sure. But I was floored by the number of individuals who believed that Grant had an obligation to wade through the uncertainty and get himself back in uniform this season. And I can only surmise that some of it is rooted in the peculiar notion that college football players, even one who arrived as a freshman with his parents paying full tuition, somehow owe us all?
Jaydon Grant doesn’t owe us a thing.
Let’s get that straight.
Nor do his teammates, who signed up for scholarships long before they knew the commitment might put them in the crosshairs of a virus. If they don’t feel comfortable with what appear to be inconsistent testing protocols and vague hopes, can any of us really blame them?
The Pac-12 universities that crow so much about player safety must know that they can’t really predict what’s going to happen here. It’s why they’re not allowing students on campus for in-person courses to start the academic school year. So yeah, I don’t blame Grant or fellow athletes nationally one bit for explaining how uneasy they are about a return to the locker room and competition.
CBS Sports even started a tracker, noting the growing number of players who have already opted out of playing this season.
“It’s inevitable. It’s a full-contact sport. How can we know we’ll be safe?” Grant asked this week. “We don’t even know what the next stage looks like. We haven’t even been cleared to be at the next stage.”
A group of Pac-12 players has organized and met with conference commissioner Larry Scott on Thursday night for a couple of hours. Player safety became the dominant focus on that video-conference meeting. And the hope here is that the conference does everything in its power not to just make sure the athletes are safe, but that they feel unencumbered to make a decision each of them can live with.
Grant isn’t being soft. He’s being wise. He’s not letting his teammates down, rather he’s helping make sure they’re being taken seriously. Sure, college athletes on scholarship are granted use of the weight room, meals, housing, tuition and equipment. But let’s not confuse these things as “pay.”
This isn’t a job.
You shouldn’t make that argument unless you’d willingly go to work 40 hours a week at the grease trap company in exchange for use of a gym, a bed to sleep on, meals, job training and some good equipment.
The Pac-12 is doing the right thing by addressing concerns. I remain skeptical they’ll get in a full season without major interruptions and outbreaks. When the Pac-12 released the schedule and front-loaded it with rivalry games, the conference tipped its hand. It doesn’t believe it can get through this smoothly either.
I understand why we’d like to see college football played. It’s a wonderful sport. Maybe the best around. When the season is in full momentum, on those crisp autumn afternoons, I look around the stadium from the press box and I see families, bonding and cheering below. But those people aren’t likely to be in the stadiums this fall in large numbers.
It’s just not safe.
That’s why I don’t understand the contempt for players who don’t want to be there, either.
Still, fall camp will start soon. Games are scheduled for Sept. 26. Some players say they’ll absolutely play, but others, like Grant, want to hear more about what’s being done to keep them safe.
“They’re not moving urgently enough,” Grant said. “Are we going to wait until somebody in the Pac-12 is seriously affected by the coronavirus or God forbid someone dies?”
The Ivy League already canceled its football season. The Big Sky threw in the towel this week. High school football in Oregon and a lot of surrounding states announced it will move to the spring. Not worth the risks and too difficult logistically to pull off. The only reason major college athletic departments haven’t done the same is that without football they’d crumble financially.
Grant isn’t sure he wants to be part of it.
How in the world can anyone blame him for it?