The NCAA has failed Washington football, and all of us

In its lack of willingness to implement sweeping regulations, the NCAA has hamstrung its own best means of preservation. Washington football, along with all of college sports will feel the pain.

For now, it looks like Washington football — along with the rest of the PAC-12 and likely all of college football  —  won’t be playing until 2021 at the earliest.

That, in and of itself, and considering the sports upheaval that we’ve experienced since March shouldn’t be surprising. It’s the right decision now, with where we are in terms of combatting the virus. It needed to be done. When the Big 10 postponed, it was almost inevitable that the PAC-12 would do the same, as it has in the past.

But it still should be disappointing on many levels. Certain things are unavoidable — there is a reason that the decision to cancel spring championships in March was widely understood and criticism was largely withheld. But its been months, and the things we understand about the novel coronavirus and the realities of containing would have been unrecognizable back then. College football was taken for granted under some sort of underlying delusion that “things would sort themselves out by end of summer”.

“Back to normal” is a phrase that we all say in our heads but it’s an incredibly nebulous one that we don’t say in our normal conversations about the virus because it comes off as naïve. But every decision that has been made by the NCAA operates with the same logic it contains. At first it was “it’ll calm down by end of summer” and now it’s “the vaccine will fix everything”. It entitles us to just sit and wait instead of making a plan or pushing to find safe ways to keep business going. And college sports, as we know, is a business in every way except for the title.

And president Mark Emmert was content to sit by and allow things to get worse under the impression that the ship would automatically right itself at a certain calendar date.

Mark Emmert, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), speaks during a brief press availability on Capitol Hill December 17, 2019 in Washington, DC.

It’s the same kind of delusion that set back our country’s process of reopening schools  and bungled our attempts to reopen in July. “Normal” is not going to come back soon, and it likely won’t be the same as it was before.

All summer, coaches, ADs, and NCAA board members openly speculated on what college sports in the fall could look like. Fans at games became a long shot quickly, and without ticket sales, suddenly the path to fall sports even being viable became narrower. Non-conference matchups were slashed. Mouthpieces went back and forth on what could be done.

By August, we were weary. But again, not surprised. It’s time we considered jumping ship.

I cannot make this clear enough — the NCAA is toast. It is done. This complete structural failure won’t go without destructive consequences. It’s already damaging college basketball, the profits from which comprise about ⅔ of the NCAA’s total income. They likely won’t beat or even come close to 2019’s or even 2020’s earnings, and the organization is already in a hole. Any of the profits from college football have been delayed to the beginning of next year, profits which are contingent on the emergence of a vaccine that scientists have said is likely to be about 50% effective. The organization is showing its cards (i.e. the fact that it is forced to value its money-making sports and big-time programs accordingly for the sake of survival) without even getting the benefit of them playing (i.e. the money that they need more desperately now than ever).

D2 and D3 sports were canned much earlier because of the reality of what they provide for the NCAA and the country at large — not enough to justify the hassle.

We’re close to an unraveling point where the NCAA’s insistence on punting to the conferences will backfire. In Emmert’s reluctance to introduce sweeping measures that applied to the whole nation, schools were left to figure it out and empowered to make decisions tailored to their own needs.

That makes sense on a certain level, but why does it have to be each institution? It doesn’t “have” to be anything. There are financial realities, there are issues with oversight and there are plenty of unknowns and exceptions, but more aggressive involvement from the organization could’ve prevented things like this:

Players on college campuses — some of the biggest in the country — practicing, socializing and likely taking summer classes while only getting tested once a month. Because schools don’t want to give any more preferential treatment to athletes than they already have, the idea of more frequent and rapid testing is a turnoff and a financial burden that they aren’t willing to shoulder.

College athletes are also students with friends and relationships outside of the job that they aren’t paid for. So far, administrations and athletic departments have opted to just hope that players don’t expose themselves to the virus unnecessarily, but there’s no logical basis in thinking that’s a model that will work for the future. Multiple outbreaks at schools like Rutgers involved players getting sick at off-campus parties, and Washington’s own Greek life system already had to withstand an outbreak in multiple houses this summer. At a certain point, responsibility cannot be assumed — it has to be demonstrated and enforced. For the most part, neither of those things are happening, and they haven’t since March.

The organization’s willingness to let each program take their own measures over the summer also allowed for richer and bigger programs to enjoy a higher level of security (although in UCLA’s case, they obviously did not take advantage of it). Bigger programs had the means to stay safer and some others did not.

But shelling out for small schools that won’t generate the income to make up for their support will only aggravate budget problems, so it was avoided.

And that’s the primary issue. The NCAA isn’t doing right by any of its constituents — the big-time programs and conferences that count on its platform or the smaller schools that would struggle immensely without its support or structure. The conferences have the keys to the car now, and the prospects of them giving them back are laughable. And the ones who receive the brunt of the damage? Players.

Two football seasons consecutively in a calendar year is not just not ideal. It’s most likely going to be dangerous and cost players on the path to going pro due to the physical toll coupled with a jilted schedule with the draft. As of now, there is no way for players to be compensated even close to fairly for the risks they are undergoing to fund the mechanisms keeping leagues in place.

Among the demands that PAC-12 players included in their unionization message was one for health and safety protections and basic medical coverage, things that they know the national organization cannot feasibly give. That’s why they called upon the conference instead.

“There’s not enough transparency about health risks, no uniformity to ensure we’re all safe when we play each other, and no adequate enforcement infrastructure,” the Player’s Tribune statement reads. “NCAA sports has truly failed us — it doesn’t enforce any health and safety standards. We believe a football season under these conditions would be reckless and put us at needless risk. We will not play until there is real change that is acceptable to us.”

This isn’t to mention the ongoing issues of player compensation that will only strengthen if there’s still a reasonable risk of getting sick in January. It was an issue long before this, and one that looked like it was headed for some change. If the NCAA continues using players as a financial shield to milk earnings, conferences and programs will feel more emboldened to leave the relationship.

And that’s where things dissolve into chaos — when order is withdrawn and its return lies far in the distance.

I will miss Husky sports in the fall, as I will miss all of the college sports I love. I’m not very concerned with how well UW would fare on the court or field this fall, because that’s beside the point. As I said, there are realities to what can and needs to be done, and for now, the decision is the best one. But it didn’t have to be this way, and the country knows it.

I just hope that if the NCAA completely collapses by the end of the year fans and onlookers will understand that it wasn’t just because of a virus.

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