As college presidents and officials at the “Power 5” college football conferences moved closer to postponing the fall season over COVID-19 concerns, a dozen top players have organized a pushback.
Spearheaded by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the players used the hashtag #WeWantToPlay to argue that the risk for those participating in football is lower than in a non-college sports environment. In a joint statement, the players called for “universal, mandated health and safety procedures” while also backing the rights of individual players to opt out for personal reasons.
The outcome of the deliberations will have a major impact on a number of major media companies, including Disney, Fox and ViacomCBS. College football has boomed in popularity over the years, becoming a multi-billion-dollar business across dozens of national and regional pay-TV networks.
Asked last week during Disney’s quarterly earnings call for his view on college football, CEO Bob Chapek deferred to league officials as to whether the season should proceed. But he said covenants that ABC, ESPN and other Disney networks have to deliver a certain number of college football programming hours to pay-TV operators and local stations did not appear to be under threat. “With the way that we see all of the sports going on right now, we feel confident that we’re going to be able to reach” those targets, he said.
Lachlan Murdoch, CEO of Fox Corp., was even more emphatic on his company’s quarterly call with Wall Street analysts. “We fully expect both college football and the NFL to come back in the fall,” he said.
On Saturday, the Mid-American Conference became the first top-tier football conference to cancel the fall sports season, including sports. Officials cited not only surging coronavirus infection rates but also concerns about long-term health risk to players. Media reports over the weekend indicated that athletic officials and university presidents held meetings as the level of concern continued to rise.
In July, many schools welcomed football players back to campus, only to find dozens of them testing positive. Unlike professional sports, where players and teams are also confronting a daunting set of decisions related to the virus, college sports centers on athletes who are not paid. That has raised the specter of nationally televised games played this fall by teams of amateur athletes not kept in a protective bubble and interacting day to day with broader school populations. Precautions also vary widely among colleges, reflecting the patchwork of broader COVID-19 response by state and municipal authorities over the course of the pandemic.
The #WeWantToPlay movement gained traction online Sunday night into Monday and drew a range of high-profile supporters. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the athletic director and head football coach at the University of Arkansas were among those backing the players. President Donald Trump tweeted straightforwardly, “Play College Football!” Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh added his support, releasing a statement saying, “I’m not advocating for football this fall because of my passion or our players’ desire to play, but because of the facts accumulated over the last eight weeks.”
Lawrence, who is widely viewed as a potential top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, initiated the player movement with a series of tweets. “People are at just as much, if not more risk, if we don’t play,” he wrote. “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 covid19.”