Report: Big 10 votes to cancel fall college football season, other Power Five conferences on brink

There must be a long unpronounceable German word that describes the feeling of being shocked by something you believed was inevitable.

The commissioners of the Power Five conferences reportedly held an emergency meeting last night, spurred by reports that the Big 10 was about to pull the plug. The Big 10 apparently wanted to gauge whether other conferences would follow their lead or go their own way. There’s a potential prisoner’s dilemma here, after all: If the Big 10 bows out, players in that conference who desperately want to be on the field this fall could request transfers to schools in conferences that do intend to play. Even if those transfers can’t happen in time for the start of the season, the hard feelings engendered among Big 10 stars who were deprived of a chance to compete this year might trigger a wave of transfers next season.

You would think, then, that if the Power Five were about to take this leap, they’d feel obliged to do it together. But that’s not what happened, per Dan Patrick’s sources. The Big 10 is out and the PAC-12 is reportedly set to follow suit tomorrow. But the ACC, Big 12, and SEC? Undecided as of now.

Reportedly the vote among Big 10 presidents was 12-2 against playing in the fall, with only Nebraska and Iowa dissenting. “Well, at least Michigan won’t lose to OSU this year,” said a Twitter pal.

Don’t be so sure, though. Some people involved don’t want the season canceled, just moved to the spring so that it doesn’t coincide with an unexpected “second wave” of COVID this fall:

Sources told ESPN that a vast majority of Big Ten presidents have indicated that they would vote to postpone football season, hopefully to the spring. A Big Ten official confirmed to ESPN that no official vote took place during Saturday’s meeting…

A Group of 5 athletic director told ESPN: “I don’t know why we are trying to push to play in the fall. It’s always made more sense to me to just play in the spring.”

Nonzero chance that we get to watch Harbaugh and the Wolverines lose by five touchdowns to OSU in May next year instead of November.

“Nobody wanted to be the first to do it,” said one coach to ESPN of wanting to postpone the season, “and now nobody will want to be the last.” The conference that got the ball rolling was the Mid-American, which pulled the plug on Saturday. They’re a smaller conference that makes big bucks from playing a few games against Power Five opponents — but because the Power Five is sticking to all-conference schedules this year, that payday was off the table. Emboldened by the Mid-American’s move, the Big 10 immediately paused all-pads football practices and began chatting about postponing the season altogether. Now we’re on the brink of having two of the Power Five bow out (assuming you still consider the PAC-12 a “power” conference).

What if the SEC, which has the most lucrative TV contracts, decides that it’s fine occupying the stage alone and invites dissenting teams from shuttered conferences — or dissenting players from shuttered programs — to join them in a fall season? Could we have Notre Dame in the SEC? Justin Fields transferring back to Georgia? Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson just bought the dead husk of the XFL with a few business partners for $15 million. Maybe he could rent a few stadiums on the fly, recruit the creme de la creme of college football this year, and have, say, an eight-team league up and running by January. I’d watch the hell out of that. Surely some TV network will buy the rights to air the games.

To make the situation a little more chaotic, a group of players that includes Clemson start Trevor Lawrence floated this statement last night suggesting that it’s time for players to unionize, sort of:

The argument against college sports, or college anything, this fall is that students can’t feasibly maintain social distancing. “The dorms are cruise ships” is how one university official described the problem back in March. The fear with football and other sports isn’t so much that players will transmit the virus on the field, in the open air, as that they’ll pass it along during the many, many hours they spend together in indoor spaces, be it the locker room, the gym, practice facilities for reviewing game film, etc. It would take an unusually serious public-health threat to convince schools to leave the gigantic windfalls they receive every fall from college football on the table, but clearly university officials, having looked at the evidence, have concluded that this is unusually serious.

The counterargument comes from Lawrence, who notes that (a) many players live lives in which where their health is constantly under serious threat and (b) they’re more likely to take precautions against infection if they have a good reason to stay healthy. As we’ve seen this summer, many young adults will behave recklessly and expose the people around them to the virus even when not forced to congregate. So what’s the harm in letting them congregate to play ball?

This is about to become a political football (no pun intended) too since canceling the season would be an unusually stark signal that America has failed to manage its pandemic effectively. “Sports are like the reward of a functional society,” as one MLB player put it earlier this summer. Postponing one of the country’s favorite fall distractions would be a de facto admission that our society isn’t functioning well, which isn’t a great look for the incumbent and his party shortly before an election. Three Republicans from football-crazy states are out today with pleas to keep the season going:

It’s too late for Sasse’s and Jordan’s home states if the news about the Big 10 backing out is true, but Florida’s still hanging in there for now. Kudos to Rubio for somehow avoiding the standard conspiratorial read on shutting down the season, which is that Democrats are trying to hurt Trump by ruining America’s fun before the election, and choosing instead the conspiratorial read that this is part of a longstanding vendetta against football due to violence. Marco’s always been a little more creative than the rest of the pack.

Exit question: Will the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 follow the other two Power Five conferences by postponing the season? I think the SEC might hang in there. They’re usually in a league of their own anyway.

Update: Yup, political football.