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To play or not to play — athletes should have a say in current college football environment

FILE: In this Nov. 30, 2019, file photo, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields rolls out to throw against Michigan during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Ann Arbor, Mich. Fields started an online petition to save the Big Ten season that has collected more than 300,000 signatures.
Paul Sancya, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Four conferences and some 54 FBS schools have declared they will sit out the upcoming college football season due to the pandemic, and this isn’t sitting well with a lot of people, namely coaches and players. Even the parents of players are lodging complaints, as if their kids were back in Little League and they were lobbying for playing time.

They all want to see games go on.

But the schools and conferences have dug in. Fine, but here’s what they should do: If they really care about their “student-athletes” as they say they do — if they’re concerned about their welfare and future — they should allow any player who wants to play this fall to transfer to a school committed to playing the season and grant him immediate eligibility.

These are extraordinary times; they call for extraordinary measures.

The schools that have committed to playing this season are giving their players the opportunity to opt out; the schools and conferences that are committed to canceling the season should give their players the chance to opt out, too — opt right out of the school and transfer elsewhere.

After all, the players originally signed with their school’s football program with the understanding that those schools would actually participate in football in the fall. Now that about 42% of FBS schools have canceled their season over fears of the pandemic, their players should be given the opportunity to choose to play or not to play and, if the former, the ability to transfer to another school.

The schools’ fears about playing football during the pandemic are certainly debatable. All 10 conferences have access to the same science in making their decisions whether to play or not play, yet they have reached dramatically different conclusions. The Pac-12, Big Ten, Mid-American Conference and Mountain West Conference have stated the science indicates that it’s too dangerous to play the game. The other six conferences have determined that it’s safe enough to go on.

One player in the Pac-12 footprint — UCLA starting right tackle Jake Burton — announced Tuesday he would transfer to the Big 12’s Baylor, with the hopes of playing this fall, the Los Angeles Times reported.

According to Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin, there won’t be a special waiver made available for players whose conferences have postponed football to transfer and play immediately.

“It’s really unfortunate that the NCAA is not allowing them to transfer and be eligible immediately. We’re being told that won’t even go into a waiver process, so I feel really bad for those kids,” Kiffin said, according to the Las Vegas Review Journal. “It’s not their fault. Why can’t they come play somewhere? That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Strangely, the Pac-12 and Big Ten originally determined it was safe to play, too. On July 9, the Big Ten announced it would play the season, but only conference games. A day later, the Pac-12 made the same announcement. On July 31, the Pac-12 released its revamped conference-only schedule, and on Aug. 5 the Big Ten did the same. On Aug. 11, both schools announced they were canceling the season. What changed in only a matter of days?

“All of the Pac-12 presidents and chancellors understand the importance of this decision, and the disappointment it will create for our student-athletes, the coaches, support staff and all of our fans,” Oregon president Michael H. Schill, who’s chairman of the league’s CEO group, said in a statement at the time. “Ultimately, our decision was guided by science and a deep commitment to the health and welfare of student-athletes.”

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby took the opposite stance. “The virus continues to evolve and medical professionals are learning more with each passing week,” he said in a league statement. “Opinions vary regarding the best path forward, as we’ve seen throughout higher education and our society overall, but we are comfortable in our institutions’ ability to provide a structured training environment, rigorous testing and surveillance, hospital quality sanitation and mitigation practices that optimize the health and safety of our student-athletes.”

Bowlsby also explained it this way: “Ultimately, our student-athletes have indicated their desire to compete in the sports they love this season, and it is up to up to all of us to deliver a safe, medically sound and structured academic and athletic environment for accomplishing that outcome.”

As covered in a column last week, college football lacks leadership, leaving every conference and school to fend for itself. And when they’re looking for a definitive, sweeping statement from the scientific community about the safety of playing a football season, they find plenty of disagreement there, as well. They can find information to support whatever their decision might be.

Players have used the hashtag #WeWantToPlay to make their feelings known — they want to play this season and they want protocols put in place to protect them from COVID-19. Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields started an online petition to save the Big Ten season that has collected more than 300,000 signatures. Big Ten head coaches Ryan Day, Jim Harbaugh and Scott Frost have spoken out for the same cause. Frost dared to say his program might consider playing even if the conference didn’t resurrect the season. Last week, parents of Big Ten players campaigned for the season to be played.

“These kids have virtually self-quarantined for three months and worked their tails off and done everything the NCAA and the university have asked them to do,” Jeff Borland told Outkick (his son plays for Ohio State). “To have the rug pulled out from underneath them at the last minute with really no additional information is really a shame.”

It’s the great debate of sports of course — to play or not to play. Athletes should have some say in the matter, but don’t.