Ronnie Stanley’s last college football season was distinguished. Notre Dame won 10 of its first 11 games in 2015, moving as high as No. 4 in the national rankings, and the left tackle earned consensus All-America honors. By the end of a season that culminated with a Fiesta Bowl appearance, Stanley was a sure-thing first-round draft pick.
Mark Andrews’ last college football season was record-breaking. With an offense led by Baker Mayfield and featuring Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and CeeDee Lamb out wide, Oklahoma averaged a Division I-high 580 yards per game in 2017. Andrews set a school record for career receiving yards by a tight end, and the Sooners advanced to the College Football Playoff.
Personally and professionally, the seasons were special — springboards to Pro Bowl careers with the Ravens, last hurrahs with teammates who’d become family. This week, they’re reminders of all that could be lost across the sport.
As the Ravens approach the start of training camp practices, the college football season is teetering. The Mid-American Conference on Saturday became the first of the major college football leagues to cancel its fall season, and other Power Five conference commissioners met Sunday night to discuss whether a season can be safely held this fall with the coronavirus pandemic still not under control in the United States.
Even as college football players like Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Alabama running back Najee Harris united Sunday across social media in an attempt to save their season, the sport’s near-term future is precarious. A decision by the Big Ten Conference to postpone or cancel its fall season could lead to a domino effect of similar moves across the country.
“It’d be tough to have your season canceled,” Andrews said in a conference call Monday. “I know, for me, going to Oklahoma, I lived Oklahoma. I grew up at Oklahoma. So for me, not to be able to have a season would be devastating. So I’m hoping that they’re going to have it, for a lot of those kids’ sakes. That’s their time to go out there and prove themselves. A lot of those guys may make a name for themselves this year, and if they don’t have that, maybe they don’t get into the NFL. So there’s a lot that relies on that.”
Because of projected revenue losses amid the pandemic, the NFL’s salary cap could fall from $198 million this year to as low as $175 million in 2021. At the college level, the ramifications of a football-free fall could be even more far-reaching.
Patrick Rishe, a sports business professor at Washington University in St. Louis, told ESPN that the 65 Power 5 schools would collectively lose more than $4 billion in football revenues if the season is nixed. In an email to season-ticket holders, Michigan said this month that its projected revenue decline of $61 million could double if sports are canceled.
But after an offseason beset by COVID-19 outbreaks that forced programs across the country to suspend team workouts and largely eliminate nonconference play, the prospects of a full 2020 slate remain grim. School presidents and conference administrators are wrestling with questions of liability and morality as they attempt to stage a season with an ostensibly amateur workforce playing a full-contact sport while a virus shuts down college campuses.
“I think they’re in a rough position because these [players], they’re really not getting compensated for the risks that they’re taking, and especially this year going into it, I’m sure every school doesn’t have the resources that the NFL has,” Stanley said Monday. “Football is a unique sport because there’s so many people involved, so many players, and it’s really a physical sport. You can’t really avoid contact. ... To take all these things and have precautions for everything, you’re going to need the resources, and in college, that’s just not the case for every college.”
Earlier this month, football players in the Pac-12 Conference and Big Ten called for stricter medical guidelines, economic reform and racial justice. On Sunday night, some of the sport’s biggest names came together to share a graphic on social media with the hashtags #WeWantToPlay and #WeAreUnited.
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Under the logos of each Power Five conference — the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference — players said they wanted to play this season, provided there were universal health and safety procedures in place to protect them against COVID-19. Last on their list was a potentially more significant goal: the creation of a College Football Players Association.
“I think at the end of the day, they have to do what’s right for them,” Andrews said. “But being a college player and being an NFL player is a big difference. They need to have people that are better looking out for them. And for us, it was the NFL [Players Association]. And they don’t have that voice. So I think as a whole, they need to have players step up and come together and be on the same page with what needs to happen and the guidelines that need to be taken.”
Said Stanley, who’s served as the Ravens’ NFLPA representative: “I’m very happy to see the players standing up for their health and their long-term health and their stance together with that.”
It might be too late for much of the sport. Last week, the NCAA’s Division II and Division III announced that they wouldn’t hold fall sports championships. More than half of the conferences at the Football Championship Subdivision level have also said they won’t play in the fall.
With the NFL’s regular season expected to kick off in a month, there’s still hope college football can find a way to fields this fall. By Monday afternoon, even President Donald Trump had joined the #WeWantToPlay movement on social media.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.