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To play or not to play: Nation divided over whether to save 2020 college football season

As conferences announce cancellation of their college football seasons, others claim games should go forward and a growing surge of players demand it.

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe meets with the media at his semiannual press conference Friday, Jan. 29, 2016, in Provo, Utah.
BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe meets with the media at his semiannual press conference Friday, Jan. 29, 2016, in Provo, Utah. Holmoe has been busy working the phones trying to fill out his team’s football schedule.
Mark A. Philbrick/BYU

PROVO — We’ve got a real debate brewing over whether or not we should have college football.

The perfect solution eludes us.

In the meantime, BYU’s 2020 schedule went from 12 games to six then just to three after the Mountain West (Utah State, Boise State, San Diego State) pulled the plug on the fall season Monday.

Should BYU follow suit as an independent right now? Just quit?

Or try to build a new season with a foundation of three games?

I know that BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe has been working like crazy the past month to create a season after losing Pac-12 and Big Ten games. I was told Monday that folks have little idea how many calls, emails and texts Holmoe has churned through the past few weeks to land opponents, but so much is out of his control.

He’s like a hamster running on a wheel.

Late Monday, I got the assignment of opining about all this. After hours of research, phone calls and pondering things, I told my boss this was like surfing, you never know what wave is coming.

It’s just nuts. In the past 48 hours, things have been changing by the hour.

Right now, if the SEC, Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference and American Athletic Conference decide to go forward, they might need an independent free agent like BYU to fill in somewhere since some games will get knocked out if the Big Ten cancels its season.

Or not.

Nebraska says it will play even if its conference does not. If it does, it certainly will call Holmoe and other remaining hopeful survivors. The Air Force Academy announced it would look into games with rivals Army and Navy despite the MWC postponing games until spring. Maybe AFA will call Holmoe.

Maybe other MWC and Big Ten teams will rebel against league edicts as AFA did.

Or not.

In all this, we have a divided country.

It isn’t cut and dry.

We have Weber State unable to play football, but Weber High will play this week.

You have Utah running back transfer Devonta’e Henry-Cole leaving Utah for BYU then going to Utah State this summer and now he can’t play this fall. How weird is that? Will he ever play another down of college football? Spring, you say? Can somebody promise him that?

We have Big Ten and Pac-12 presidents expected to say no way to football, yet we just witnessed a thrilling end to the PGA Championship — in San Francisco. The NBA is playing in a bubble, the NFL is gearing up to kick off, and Major League Baseball, albeit with some bumps, is competing.

Yet, college football is on the ropes?

In one corner you have university presidents in the Pac-12 and Big Ten sending signals that the upcoming season must be shut down or postponed. The COVID-19 threat scares them. A cynic would say they don’t want to be blamed, sued or responsible for an outbreak; the claim it is putting students’ health first. This, over the objection of many of their players and coaches.

In the other corner, you have the Big 12, ACC and SEC leadership who would at least like to try to push forward and play football. Yes, there is a risk. They’ll try every way to be safe, but they believe it is worth trying to see what happens. They may still pull the plug, but they have faith that playing is better than quitting.

In the SEC, football is a religion. Is the SEC going to say no to football? I’ll believe it when I see it. They only flinch during hurricanes that they can actually taste and see.

After a week of player-led manifestos and demands in select college football conferences, there’s an equal push by many players that they really, really want to play football, virus be damned.

This, folks, is a real problem.

We already saw athletic careers and dreams ruined this spring.

Yes, much was in the noble pursuit of safety. But is it really that unsafe?

It is not clear cut. One decision may not fit all.

Virginia’s Bronco Mendenhall says the bigger picture is what’s most important, that this is a national and worldwide concern and safety should overshadow everything else. His team has had zero positive tests.

If college football shuts down, the financial bloodbath will be in the billions. Many athletic departments have already been hit unthinkably hard and this will cause layoffs, furloughs, and cutbacks that will take years to recover from. Scholarship eligibility will be messed up, so will recruiting. You could have two senior classes in 2021 when and if things resume.

With no TV revenue, all conferences will be drained to the basement piggy bank. TV networks will be hit hard with reduced advertising revenue. Expenses and bills will climb.

Is this all necessary? Is it overkill or is it saving lives?

There are some who believe it is overkill. They even believe the shutdown of spring sports and the cancellation of the NCAA Final Four was an overreach, that as humans we still have to go on living our lives. We can’t shelter in place forever.

One of the biggest voices of Stay and Play is Clemson superstar QB Trevor Lawrence. He has become the voice of players, of whom I believe the majority want to play. Lawrence joined numerous players tweeting out a message under the banner of their Power Five conference logos and used the hashtags #WeAreUnited and #WeWantToPlay.

In separate tweets, Lawrence explained: “People are at just as much, if not more risk if we don’t play. Players will all be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely and medical care and expenses will be placed on the families if they were to contract COVID-19.

“Not to mention the players coming from situations that are not good for them/their future and having to go back to that. Football is a safe haven for so many people. We are more likely to get the virus in everyday life than to play football. Having a season also incentivizes.”

Chad Fotheringham, father of Utah’s star tight end Cole Fotheringham tweeted out late Monday a heartfelt plea: “Let them play! My son has worked his tail off to be ready to play this year and he will be safer playing than not playing. He’s currently surrounded by those constantly testing him, treating him (if needed) if he’s playing. Not playing puts him more at risk!”

So this is the dilemma: Play and maybe get sick, or disperse to communities and maybe increase chances of getting COVID-19 with fewer safety nets like free athletic department testing.

Glad it’s not my call.