“No matter how good of a job, how much of an effort a school tries to put into it, it’s just inevitable,” Bonner said. “Football, you have to touch each other. We have to tackle each other, going to be breathing on each other. It’s just too much.”
Bonner, who two weeks ago decided against playing this season, is in the small minority of players who have without equivocation said they will not play in 2020. Before a group of Pac-12 players threatened a mass boycott paired with a long list of demands for player safety and social justice, Bonner, who is studying for a master’s degree in social work, was one of the first college football players to step away from his team.
As the planned season inches closer, players and their parents worried about the prospect of playing during the novel coronavirus pandemic are seeing their objections go unheeded by a multibillion dollar enterprise that seems determined to carry on. The great fear, players and their parents say, bolstered in media appearances by gung-ho coaches and private conversations with players, is that players who sit out may earn a stigma that lasts long after the pandemic recedes, in their programs and beyond.
Others are resigned to risk infection for the ultimate goal: a career in the NFL.
“Some guys are too nervous to tell their coach how they really feel,” Bonner said. “Some guys, they may be feeling blackmailed to play. Some people just want to play and just get out of college, get to the NFL. A lot of players are nervous. A lot of players are afraid, fear for themselves because they don’t feel as though they have a voice.”
Coaches in major conferences have scrambled to retain undecided players after some leagues announced shortened seasons with conference-only schedules. With the NCAA recommending a 14-day quarantine for players who contact others who have the virus, large groups of players or entire teams could be forced to skip multiple games. The fear: Players weighing the risk of contracting the virus against the opportunity to play fewer games than the usual 12 will choose to save a season of eligibility instead, stifling the competitiveness of their teams, throwing depth charts out of whack and limiting recruiting capacity in 2021.
Decisions including the shortening of the schedule, training camp dates and safety protocols have come in the last month for most conferences — all without official guidance or regulation from the NCAA. This has been a source of frustration for coaches, players and parents, adding a degree of confusion to the late-summer weeks when college football programs usually reestablish a strict routine.
“The problem is that all the other sports are treating this like Democrats and college football is handling this like Republicans, thinking this virus is just going to go away," said one SEC coach, comparing college football with pro hockey and basketball. The coach spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive topics. “And I’m saying that as a Republican.”
The gaps in communication have angered parents and influenced some to organize. In May, Mya and Chris Hinton started a private Facebook group that welcomes parents of college football players across the NCAA, from the major conferences to Division III. It offers a forum for airing out grievances over the handling of the virus and a resource for those parents who ask the Hintons — or the group at large — for help. The group has more than 2,300 members. The Hintons now report back to the group on regular calls with NCAA leadership.
The Hintons, former Northwestern athletes whose sons play football at Michigan and Stanford, anticipate a wave of opt-outs as the season draws nearer. Families they have communicated with are afraid to do so right now, they said, preferring to wait and see whether the NCAA or the conference will shut the season down and spare their sons the stigma of being labeled quitters.
“I hate that a decision like that has been passed down to 18-, 19-year-olds and their families,” Chris Hinton said. “We hear from people who are actually afraid of coaches and administrators, but if we move forward and the season is definitely going to happen, you’ll see opt-outs escalate.”
Parents in the group discussion board post freely throughout the day apparently without fear they will be outed, with the Hintons screening each applicant to the group and promising not to share grievances with outsiders. A popular gripe: that administrators, coaches and especially fans don’t seem to understand the risks their sons would be taking by playing this fall.
“As a parent, you think so much differently when you have a child who is in it,” Mya Hinton said. “As a fan, I found myself yelling at the TV screen and yelling at peoples’ kids, not realizing that they’re children. But now our boys are in it, and you think about the impact on what the virus could potentially do to them or to us or to grandparents coming in contact with them. . . . It’s a lot.”
When Bonner made the decision to skip the 2020 season, he hadn’t heard about any player who had already chosen to do so. But in the days since, others followed, including Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley and Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman. Kevin Doyle, a reserve quarterback at the University of Arizona, has watched MLB struggle through outbreaks on multiple teams, and he knows baseball’s model, in which players are not strictly isolated and teams travel to other cities for away games, mirrors college football’s plan. With so much uncertainty, Doyle told his coaches last week he would sit out the season.
Doyle’s coaches supported his decision, and schools in the Power Five conferences have pledged to honor the scholarships of players who opt out and said those athletes will remain in good standing with their programs. But Doyle said he has friends at other schools who feel such a decision is only supported “on paper” and the coaches “might not mean it at all and it be very obvious.”
After his announcement, Doyle received about 20 messages from players with questions about the process of opting out. “Everybody’s in the same boat,” Doyle said. “Everybody in the country is thinking the same thing. I guarantee you they all have very, very similar thoughts on opting out.”
Earlier this summer, Jake Curhan, an offensive lineman at California Berkeley, read a CBS Sports article about a University of Illinois computer science professor who modeled how the coronavirus could spread through college football. Sheldon Jacobson’s projections found that 30 to 50 percent of the 13,000 Football Bowl Subdivision players would contract the virus and three to seven would die (Jacobson now says his data projects less than two deaths). Curhan imagined how angry he would feel if that happened and he then saw condolences expressed by a university, conference or the NCAA.
“I 100 percent want to play football,” Curhan said. “But I don't want to play football at the expense of a teammate or even an opponent's life.”
Curhan talked with some teammates who had similar concerns, and they connected with players at other Pac-12 schools. Those conversations culminated in an unprecedented push for college athlete rights, and a group of Pac-12 players threatened to boycott fall practices and games if demands related to safety, racial justice and compensation are not met by the conference. Hundreds of players support the movement, but it’s unclear how many would sit out.
Even though Cal has adhered to proper coronavirus protocols, Curhan said, “I just don’t have faith in the system of college football to be able to contain the virus in a way, say, an NBA bubble or any of the other professional sports bubbles are doing.”
In a private meeting last week with SEC leaders and medical advisers, several football players raised concerns about their safety and the long-term effects of the virus, according to an audio recording obtained by The Washington Post.
“We’re going to have positive cases on every single team in the SEC,” one unidentified official told players on the call. “That’s a given. And we can’t prevent it.”
One player asked whether the medical advisers would let their kids play under these circumstances. Another player asked, “Is it worth having a football season without certainty?” For now, the SEC and its counterparts continue preparing for the season, which will generate the millions of dollars needed to fund athletic departments and pay the salaries of decision-makers and coaches, and in many cases support broader growth at the universities.
Bonner said the NCAA’s handling of this issue is consistent with its history of prioritizing profits over player health.
“All this pandemic really does is expose the NCAA even more,” Bonner said. “That’s all that it does. It just makes it more clear to people on the outside, like, ‘Wow, they really don’t care about those kids.' "
Even with the Power Five conferences’ commitment to honor scholarships of athletes who choose not to participate in athletics this year, players are unsure how sitting out could affect their eligibility. Athletes are permitted to play four seasons over five years, but if the player has already redshirted and then chooses to skip the 2020 season, he would lose a year of eligibility unless the NCAA grants him a waiver.
Players worry a decision to opt out would hurt their standing within their programs and influence the perspective of coaches who would determine their playing time in the seasons that follow. When San Jose State players prepared for a return to campus, the staff sent out a message and asked them to sign up for a move-in time. Two weeks later, the players settled into their college residences, and the team reconvened via video conference. On that call, senior running back Tyler Nevens said, he first heard that the players’ return to campus was voluntary.
“I thought I didn’t have a choice,” Nevens said in an interview. “If I did have a choice, I would have stayed home.”
Nevens would have preferred to wait a week and see how the school navigated the players’ return. He said the lopsided power dynamic in locker rooms makes it difficult for players to voice their concerns. “A lot of players relate,” Nevens said. “But at the same time, we don’t know how to communicate that, and we don’t feel like we can communicate that.”
Bonner, who hopes to pursue a career in social work if his NFL aspirations don’t pan out, said college football is buoyed by people like him. The son of a single mother in Cincinnati, Bonner said he wouldn’t have had an opportunity to go to a school such as Illinois if not for a football scholarship. But the schools, he said, take more from people in his position than they give, especially now that players are facing a disease with unknown long-term consequences.
“Coaches are making millions. Assistant coaches are making six figures,” Bonner said. “All these people are making money, and then people like them and fans will say, ‘Oh, you have school paid for, blah, blah, blah.’ But none of this is free. We work for this. And right now the risk is greater than the reward.
“If any one of us decides to make a decision to keep us safe, we should be 100 percent supported in that, but it shouldn’t have to come down to that. The NCAA should just make that decision for us and say: ‘You know what? It’s not safe. It’s the players’ lives that matter most.’ Obviously it’s not what matters most. You’re still treating us like we’re guinea pigs, pawns, and not like we’re human beings.”
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