Especially during COVID times, the NCAA has established itself as an organization leading from behind.
It wasn’t the NCAA that exhibited any leadership in cancelling the NCAA Tournament in March – leadership instead was done by the conferences themselves. First, the Ivy League, who pulled the plug on their postseason tourney and spring competition, and then a multitude of conferences after the NBA’s Rudy Gobert tested positive and another Utah teammate of his also tested positive shortly thereafter.
The NCAA Board of Governors and NCAA President Mark Emmert didn’t cancel the NCAA Tournament until it was literally impossible to move forward. In a nutshell, that sums up the NCAA’s entire coronavirus response: Do absolutely nothing until weeks after your membership has shown leadership and unquestionably made the right decision, then pull the plug and hope nobody else notices the fact that you were willing to put unpaid athletes at risk in order to cash some checks.
In regards to fall football, the NCAA has followed the exact same playbook.
The NCAA did next to nothing when it came to planning for playing in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as the disease has ravaged the country for the last five months. Some laughably vague guidelines were issued on how to practice, and still, in the first week in August, only three of the vaguest of bullet points exist in regards to guidance on what to do if an outbreak happens on a team.
No guidelines for having fans in stadiums. No guidelines as to how a football game can be contested without transmitting COVID-19 to teammates or competitors or coaches. No guidance on how to implement a bubble. Nothing.
In the absence of any guidance, all college football programs and conferences across the nation have been asked to fend for themselves. They have been asked an impossible choice – how to contest football games safely without any guidance from anybody else.
As a result, Division III and II, led by HBCU’s and the Ivy and Patriot Leagues, showed true leadership. At great financial risk to themselves, they chose to cancel the fall seasons for the health and safety of their own students. And, as ever, the NCAA and Board of Governors are behind the curve.
Despite the bungling and mismanagement of the NCAA, President Mark Emmert and the Board of Governors, they still have one final chance to get on the right side of history and submit to reality. They have one final chance to get ahead of the curve – slightly – and claim a tiny bit of the moral high ground they have abdicated for the last decade.
This Tuesday, they can have the correct take – the one that HBCU’s and the Ivy and Patriot League had nearly a month ago. They could cancel their fall championships and start brainstorming ways to contest a small, limited championship in the spring.
The reputation of NCAA President Mark Emmert, and the NCAA’s Board of Governors this past month has taken a brutal beating, and for good reason. As cases have gone up and deaths in states with NCAA institutions have skyrocketed, the NCAA has been quiet or issued meaningless statements, letting other schools and conferences be the true leaders.
But making the correct decision tomorrow to cancel fall sports would show at least the semblance of a spine. It would send enough of a message that the NCAA cares more about the health and welfare of their students and athletes in the face of a lot of wealthy people who seem to be quite happy to put their athletes and their families in terrible, unnecessary risk.
The NCAA has been seen, with lots of justification, as being the lap dog for everything that the wealthiest college programs have wanted. Whether they realize it or not, Tuesday’s decision – or lack thereof – will either be the day the NCAA is saved, or it falls apart.
College sports needs a rules body that prioritizes the health and well-being of their athletes. If the Power Five makes their own NCAA, it will be a mockery of what the NCAA should be – it will be an organization that treats its athletes as indentured labor, willing to send them to entertain people in COVID free skyboxes while they risk catching the virus in a scrum for a loose football.
The NCAA has a once in a generation chance right now to say that they will not stand by and let this happen. It would show that money is not the driving motivation as to what the NCAA is – it would be a return to not the perverted mission statement of today, but what it was back in 1906: “to protect young people from the dangerous and exploitative athletics practices of the time,” so stated the National Collegiate Athletic Association on its official website until it was later changed.
If they fail to take this opportunity to reposition themselves to doing the right thing and cancelling fall sports, they won’t even have the chance in the future to lead from behind anymore. They will forever be branded as the organization that would gladly have sent athletes and their family members to sickness and possible death – and it will never be able to recover any sort of moral high ground on anything ever again.
I don’t know if NCAA President Mark Emmert or the members of the NCAA Board of Governors fully grasp the enormity of tomorrow’s vote – but in reality, it is for the heart and soul of fair competition and care for the athletes. With the leak of the SEC’s athlete/administrator zoom meeting and the athletes of the PAC-12 issuing a list of demands in order to play safely in the fall, it is clear that it is not only the musings of pessimistic sportswriters and certain conference commissioners that are clamoring for the postponement of fall sports.
Most people can see that the tides are changing. There is one, final chance for the NCAA to lead from behind, and it is this Tuesday. Another delay – another week of letting athletes, fans, schools and administrators twist in the wind trying to answer unanswerable questions – would mean the NCAA is on the side of money over athlete welfare. It is their choice.
Chuck has been writing about Lehigh football since the dawn of the internet, or perhaps it only seems like it. He’s executive editor of the College Sports Journal and has also written a book, The Rivalry: How Two Schools Started the Most Played College Football Series.
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