Mind of Mike: Liability the driving force behind possible 2020 cancellation


I guess even those of us in denial knew this was coming. And it’s downright depressing.

The college football season, at one point on Monday, looked like it was over before it ever began. The Big Ten allegedly had canceled the 2020 season and the other Power Five conferences were expected to follow. Even though the official cancellation never happened, Monday’s roller-coaster proved if anything that college football this fall is teetering on the ledge.

And the reasons are similar to the reasons for everything in this world — money. But wait, don’t colleges lose a ton of money with no season? Yes they do, but they would lose more based on potential liability if players get ill or, God forbid, die from COVID-19 playing football.

THAMEL: Players deserve answers

The chances of a healthy player in the age range of 18-22 dying from COVID-19 are astronomically small. But what about a player with an undiagnosed health issue who contracts the virus from playing? The potential liability outweighs the benefits of playing a season with diminishing returns (no fan or concession money, likely reduced TV deal for 2020 with many star players sitting out and the TV atmosphere of college football akin to a spring game).

Trust me, lawyers have done risk assessment over and over again and it came out the wrong way. Playing the season could cost colleges more than not playing it. That’s the bottom line. That’s why the pecking order for the decision to cancel (and I say cancel because who knows if a postponement to the spring will ever happen) is as follows:

1. Liability

2. Optics

3. Politics

4. Player safety

I put player safety on there to emphasize the fact that this isn’t about players being safe and okay. Of course protocols and systems are put in place to protect players, but the decision to cancel is about potential lawsuits. And to me, that’s not a worry about player safety. It’s a worry about the bottom line. You might as well put player safety at No. 10 and make liability the first seven reasons. Because that’s what this is about.

There is a theory that this is about union busting and that’s why the Big Ten had supposedly moved so quickly from releasing a schedule to shutting it down (four days). Maybe it was the last straw, I don’t know. But cancelling a season isn’t going to stop what will eventually happen and the powers that be know that. Players will eventually unionize and/or come up with a way to be compensated more. That’s just inevitable.

Trevor Lawrence has been outspoken about having players' voices heard.

Why not get players to sign a waiver to play? Optics. Players get scholarships and training facilities and coaching and meal programs and all that jazz as well as a stipend, but they are still looked at as uncompensated employees by the general public and are obviously the cash cows the colleges use to make millions. So asking them to sign a waiver does not look good at all. Some schools have tried, but there has been pushback from some players and parents and it has not been universal across college football.

I initially thought of the waiver idea and it was pointed out to me how the perception of that would go over, and then it became so clear to me. This is why optics are key here. If professional leagues are shutting things down when an outbreak occurs, imagine the response from the public if it happens with amateur student athletes? No bueno.

So how about the argument that the Power Fives actually don’t have to all do the same thing? If the Big Ten and Pac-12 shut down, perhaps the Big 12, SEC and ACC should still play. Talk about a recruiting advantage (or disadvantage if things go sideways) being the leagues that listen to players and let them play. Big Ten and Pac-12 recruiting would take a step back (something the Pac-12 can’t afford) and overall recruiting would be more interesting than ever.

And would star players like Justin Fields who are part of the #wewanttopplay movement try to transfer with immediate eligibility into one of these conferences? How about Fields back in the SEC, but at Tennessee instead of Georgia? Sort of makes the head spin, no? I could go on and on. It’s a pipe dream and it’s not going to happen but it is interesting. If some of the Power Five leagues shut it down, eventually all of them will.

Final thought for today. Roster management is going to be insane with a shutdown. Do 2020 recruits get a waiver year if nothing is played in the spring? Will early enrollees for 2021 be immediately eligible to play if there is football in the spring? How do colleges fill out their rosters as players opt-out if they don’t want to play spring football?

What happens to the 85-man scholarship limit if we miss an entire football season but at the same time teams have to slash budgets? You can’t extend scholarship numbers if schools can’t afford to put 110 kids on scholarship. What a mess. All I know is that this sucks and there are still more questions than answers, but this season appears to be doomed.