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College football’s chaotic Monday reveals a sport without leadership

The president of the United States said more about the fate of a fall football season than the president of the NCAA.
Justin Fields and the Buckeyes won't be playing this fall, according to a report out of Detroit.
Justin Fields and the Buckeyes won't be playing this fall, according to a report out of Detroit. [ PAUL SANCYA | Associated Press ]
Published Aug. 10, 2020
Updated Aug. 10, 2020

In the early stages of the most critical week in modern college sports history, the president of the United States has said more publicly about the tenuous fate of the fall football season than the president of the NCAA.

And that says everything about the chaos, internal tension and complete, utter confusion that has enveloped college football over the past 48 hours. The drama and ridiculousness that captivate the country on autumn Saturdays and populate message boards 365 days a year are now on full display amidst the coronavirus pandemic because of one hard-to-believe fact.

No one is in charge.

Related: College football is becoming impossible to justify in the pandemic

Monday’s headlining report came from the Detroit Free Press, which said the Big Ten won’t be playing football this fall, despite announcing a revised schedule five days earlier. The league told multiple other news outlets that no vote has been taken, but the expectation across the sport is that the official word is coming in the next day or two: The Big Ten, including preseason title contender Ohio State, has sidelined itself for the fall, with the Pac-12 likely to follow. The Mountain West, according to Stadium’s Brett McMurphy, is out, too.

As the uncertainty swirled, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey chimed in on Twitter: “Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying.”

An apparent subtweet about an unconfirmed, controversial decision halfway across the country. It’s pure college football, in all its glorious absurdity — or it would be, if the stakes weren’t so high.

Which is the problem here. The chaos and in-fighting that make the sport so amusing are out of place when lives and livelihoods hinge on the upcoming decisions. College football doesn’t need divisions. It needs unity, or at least some semblance of leadership.

The every-league-for-itself approach has some positives. The outbreak is different in Florida than it is in Minnesota or Oregon, so the football approaches should be, too. Regional and local administrators should be able to determine what happens, like when Conference USA’s Old Dominion unilaterally canceled its fall sports season Monday.

But there are concrete consequences to the chaos, like this tweet from Ohio State linebacker Teradja Mitchell amidst the Big Ten rumors: “Can we go play in (the) SEC then?!”

It’s the same sentiment that flowed after the Mid-American Conference canceled its fall season over the weekend, when coaches told Yahoo! Sports’ Pete Thamel that they feared their players would enter the transfer portal because of the early announcement.

As the Big Ten moves toward the emergency exit, it’s encountering internal and external resistance. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh wrote a letter supporting a season.

“This isn’t over!” Ohio State coach Ryan Day tweeted. Nebraska’s Scott Frost said the Cornhuskers are prepared to “look for other options” to play if the Big Ten is out.

Related: Could college football start without every team? It has before

Players across the country began a #WeWantToPlay movement Sunday. By 12:01 Monday morning, it morphed into a push led by some of the game’s superstars—including Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State’s Justin Fields — for the chance to play under universal health protocols while advocating for a players association that would shape the sport long after the pandemic subsides.

Monday afternoon, Lawrence picked up a retweet from President Donald Trump. “Play College Football!” Trump said later.

To recap:

Tweets by the U.S. president about college football’s chaos Monday: Two.

Tweets by the NCAA or NCAA president about college football’s chaos Monday: Zero.

The leadership vacuum was on display last month, too. After the Big Ten announced it was adopting a conference-only schedule, the NCAA released a brief, worthless statement saying it “supports its members as they make important decisions based on their specific circumstances and in the best interest of college athletes’ health and well-being.”

Even in the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic and an existential threat to college sports as we know it, no one is in charge. There’s no unifying voice, no stable leadership and no central figure looking out for the game as a whole.

Only chaos, tension and confusion. And as the most critical week in college football’s modern era continues, it’s just beginning.