What’s next for college football after cancellations? 5 key questions moving forward

Scholarships, medical risks and chances of players union forming are among key debates

A general view of the field before the College Football Playoff National Championship game between the LSU Tigers and the Clemson Tigers at the Mercedes Benz Superdome on January 13, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Alika Jenner
A general view of the field before the College Football Playoff National Championship game between the LSU Tigers and the Clemson Tigers at the Mercedes Benz Superdome on January 13, 2020 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Photo by Alika Jenner (Getty Images)

Debates have raged on about whether there should be a college football season in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and those arguments were only heightened on a chaotic Tuesday.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 officially canceled their fall football seasons, citing that the medical risks posed by COVID-19 were too great.

Those leagues will attempt to play football in the spring.

But the other Power 5 conferences that make insane money on the sport -- the ACC, Big 12 and SEC -- announced they are still forging on and will continue to prepare for their seasons, essentially trying to buy more time to see how they can still play games in the midst of the pandemic.

The arguments and debates will rage on in the coming weeks.

Here are five key questions as to what could come next for college football and the Power 5 conferences.

1). Why did the Big Ten/Pac-12 decide to cancel?

Each league cited safety for players and medical hurdles that are too high to clear, based on conversations with their health experts.

But make no mistake, why these leagues canceled and why the others might as well has to do with one word: liability.

Should there be serious health problems with players, or even deaths, due to contracting the coronavirus, a class-action lawsuit is sure to follow that could financially cripple leagues and universities, according to Penn Live.

It’s a different scenario for professional sports leagues with unions and collective bargaining to minimize or even eliminate any liability concerns.

Of course, not playing football will be financially damaging to the tune of hundreds of millions in lost revenue for universities and the surrounding communities.

But playing was still a risk the Big Ten and Pac-12 were certainly not willing to take.

The coming weeks will indicate whether the other three Power 5 conferences have more of a risk tolerance.

2). What is next for the other conferences that didn’t cancel yet?

While the Big Ten and Pac-12 said their medical experts didn’t endorse playing at all, the Big 12, ACC and SEC have said that their own medical experts feel it’s worth it to try to play, according to CBS Sports.

This has led to further debate as to which medical experts are more in the right, but in the meantime, those three conferences are trying to buy more time before making an official decision.

The SEC has the most time, given the first games aren’t scheduled until Sept. 26, and their first practices will be Monday.

The ACC wants to start games Sept. 10, while the Big 12 plans on starting in mid-to-late September.

Again, these leagues hope waiting a little longer will give them more time to gather data and develop safe protocols to play, even in the midst of the pandemic.

3). Can football realistically be played in the spring?

These will be the next big set of conversations in the Big Ten and Pac 12, and if the other leagues decide to pull the plug on their fall seasons, it will be talked about for them, as well.

But it would be difficult for a myriad of reasons, such as the physical toll of playing two football seasons in a calendar year, since there would be a short turnaround before the fall of 2021, the fact that many big-name players wouldn’t play -- so that they can prepare for the NFL Draft in the spring and their future pro careers, and the impact on recruiting, all will be tough obstacles to navigate.

4). What will happen to scholarship numbers?

This is another big issue programs and the NCAA will have to deal with. And it really just leads to more questions: Will players on teams that aren’t playing this season be granted an extra year of eligibility? How does the cancellation impact incoming recruits, especially those who want to enroll early in January? How much will the limit on scholarships (currently at 85) for each team be increased to allow for some flexibility?

These are already looming headaches, but they are issues the NCAA will have to solve.

5). Can college players form a union?

Probably not, but there is an alternative.

Players are slowly starting to rise up and assert their power, which is the nightmare scenario for university presidents and administrators who have seen organizations make billions from TV rights, merchandise, tickets sales, and other revenue streams from the labor of players that, aside from giving full-ride scholarships, has been free.

Yes, those scholarships can be in the six-figure range in value, but it’s still nowhere near the money athletes could make if they were allowed to profit off their names, image and likeness.

That movement is well underway for athletes, and in the wake of players making recent demands for safety in order to play and bringing up the desire to form a College Football Players Association, it seems the times are about to change for college athletes.

But it will be nearly impossible to form a union, according to Alicia Jessop, of The Athletic.

Jessop, who is also a sports law professor at Pepperdine, tweeted out earlier in the week that the National Labor Relations Board wouldn’t grant the right of players at public or state schools to unionize. She said the NLRA grants the right to unionize employees of private employers.

Jessop went on to add that a better option for players as they secure name, image and likeness rights is forming a non-union organization that is organized as a nonprofit, and it could be led by another entity such as the National Football League Players Association.

If such an association for college athletes was in existence now, the NCAA or conferences might be able to negotiate any concerns and settlements over liability, according to Penn Live.

One doesn’t exist at the moment, but the loss of this season for some teams (and perhaps ultimately all of them) might add further motivation for players to form one.

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