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John Clay: As college football ramps up, players are asking, ‘What happened to safety first?’

UPDATED: Wed., Aug. 5, 2020

Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard blows a kiss to Oklahoma State fans after their 34-27 win over Iowa State on Oct. 26, 2019, in Ames, Iowa.   (Associated Press)
Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard blows a kiss to Oklahoma State fans after their 34-27 win over Iowa State on Oct. 26, 2019, in Ames, Iowa.  (Associated Press)
By John Clay Tribune News Service

Goodness gracious people, is this thing a mess or what? We’re talking about college football. We’re talking about trying to play college football during a coronavirus pandemic. We’re not even playing. We’re just trying to start college football in a coronavirus pandemic.

Sunday news item: The Pac-12 Unity Movement, made up of a group of the league’s football players, threatens to boycott the 2020 season if the conference doesn’t meet its demands for fair treatment, safety regulations and concern for racial justice.

Wednesday news item: A group of 1,000 Big Ten football players is calling on the conference and the NCAA to devise a comprehensive health and safety plan for the upcoming season.

Note: The virus isn’t the only thing spreading.

While conference commissioners and schools administrators have been working around the clock to figure out a way to play the college football season – and save budgets from millions in lost revenue – the people who will be on the front line have gone into Lee Corso mode. Not so fast, my friend.

Penn State defensive end Micah Parsons, a projected top five NFL draft pick, said he’s opting out of the 2020 season. Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley, another probable first-round pick, announced last week he’s a no-go. Farley’s stated reason: Tech’s alleged lax approach to the COVID-19 safety guidelines.

Uh oh, this just in: Not one, but two Eastern Kentucky University football players have quit the team over the Colonels allegedly not prioritizing health and safety. First it was punter Landon White. Now it’s reportedly offensive lineman Graham Ashkettle.

That follows Colorado State football players and staff visiting a local newspaper to claim new coach Steve Addazio was ignoring the virus. Idaho’s football players are on record as saying they’d rather not play in 2020. And did we mention that Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman, among the nation’s top receivers, is now saying he thinks he’ll sit this one out?

Credit Chuba Hubbard and Kylin Hill. Hubbard is the Oklahoma State running back who called out OSU coach Mike Gundy for wearing an OAN T-shirt. Gundy apologized. Hill is the Mississippi State running back who threatened to sit out the season if the Confederate battle symbol was not removed from the state flag. A change is in the works.

Players are discovering there is power in speaking up.

And in this case, playing through a pandemic just to ensure schools receive their television money while the “student-athletes” are limited to scholarship money might be a bridge too far.

In an attempt to allay such fears, the SEC held a conference call with the players’ leadership council last week.

It was not a complete success. When the players voiced concerns, Commissioner Greg Sankey responded that “there are no guarantees in life.” One exception: Sankey’s salary. Records show he made $2.5 million in 2018.

Said Texas A&M linebacker Keeath Magee II of the league’s answers, “It’s just kind of not good enough.”

What’s that, you say the virus doesn’t really affect young people? Tell that to 27-year-old Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez who is sitting out the MLB season after contracting a heart condition from COVID-19. Tell that to the two teenagers in Florida, between ages 14 and 17, who died last week from COVID-19 complications.

I want college football. It’s sort of my job. But there has been a get-in-the-boat-and-go feel to this thing. And it’s naive to think pressure isn’t being placed on the players. Consider that Washington State’s Kassidy Woods was told by his head coach, Nick Rolovich, that if the receiver joined the Pac-12 unity group it would “be an issue if you align with them as far as future stuff.”

Speaking of the future, there’s still so much about this novel coronavirus we don’t know. One thing we do know is that the powers-that-be will try and play college football. Whether they’ll have enough players to do so might be another matter.

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