College Football

The power of the player: College football will inevitably return, but not as we knew it

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“If the kids ever decided to take over, we’d just have to let them,” whispered the big man beside me at a faculty seminar. 

I was 21 years old, interning at the middle school as a student teacher. The big man beside me, already resigned to one day being overthrown by an eighth-grader uprising, was the middle school’s football coach. 

Football coaches see angles and tactics and matchups. It’s a thing in their brains, and they can’t choose to just deactivate it. This coach was bored enough to look around the room full of science teachers, notice a numbers disadvantage, and determine the faculty and associated staff simply didn’t have enough blockers to thwart a revolution by a bunch of Lisa Simpsons, so it’d be better to just punt.

“We’d just have to let them.” I’ve thought about that a lot during August 2020.

It was August 2 when some Pac-12 football players called for third-party safety regulations, Black athletes gaining seats at the table, and non-revenue sports being prioritized over big-salaried conference admins. 

“When we first got started, our only thought was coronavirus,” said Cal offensive lineman Jake Curhan. “We started talking to some of our teammates, and they said, ‘What about the Black Lives Matter issue? We don’t want to detract from their issue.’ The more we started talking with them, it became clear the two were the same issues.”

Eight days later, Heisman-contending quarterbacks Trevor Lawrence of Clemson and Justin Fields of Ohio State were among the leaders of a second movement that also appeared to be about one thing — finding a way to safely play football in autumn 2020 despite a pandemic — but also quickly became about lots of things all at once, including universally mandated safety procedures and a “college football players association,” something that’d probably walk/quack like a union.

“We got down to talking and agreed that both of our goals are aligned with each other,” said Stanford defensive lineman Dylan Boles. “We all want to play this year. We just want to make sure players have a say in this thing.” 

No one knows how many schools will manage to play football all the way through January 2021, and no one knows how many schools will manage to then pick up the baton in an unprecedented spring season. No one knows how many athletic departments outside the Power 5 can weather a year without the moneymaker. No one knows if any colleges, let alone athletic departments, will come up with pandemic plans any better than Hope Teenagers Will Simply Decline To Gather In Groups Of Ten. 

All we really know: the biggest of big-time college football will be back at some point, but it won’t be the same for much longer. College athletes have just begun to realize their collective power.

And with so much at stake.

A pretty obvious difference between power-conference athletics and our middle-school coach’s bored seminar daydream: there is no March Madness or College Football Playoff revenue to gain by seizing the means of production in an English comp classroom. The one who commandeers algebra has merely gained … the responsibility of teaching algebra.

But in college sports, the spoils are real and plentiful. Why else would the people at the top have fought for roughly 140 years to keep them, minus business expenses such as in-house scholarships, a billion-dollar industry’s store credit?

When Pac-12 players called for half the conference’s $530 million in yearly revenue, and when Southeastern stars called for a thing that sure sounds like a union, anyone whose brain is attuned to angles and tactics and matchups saw the eventual outcome right away.

It was always bound to collapse, and I don’t know of a single month in college athletics history that moved us closer to not just the collapse, but the better thing that can replace it.

There is absolutely nothing that can stop them, if the kids ever decide to take over.

Jason Kirk is a longtime college sports editor, author, and podcaster.