The fall college football season appeared to trudge closer to cancellation Monday over concerns about the novel coronavirus pandemic. As it did, a coalition of players, joined later by several coaches and politicians including President Trump, raised their voices to try to save it.

Big Ten athletic directors met virtually Monday evening, according to a person familiar with the call. A decision to postpone or cancel the season would ultimately be made by the conference’s university presidents. Leaders in the sport continue to mull whether it’s possible to safely hold a season. A decision to cancel by the Big Ten, one of the college game’s elite Power Five leagues, could start a domino effect that would effectively shut down the season. With uncertainty mounting, multiple coaches Monday publicly pushed for the season to go on as planned.

Big Ten football teams returned to practice last week, but the conference announced Saturday morning that until further notice, players could only practice with helmets and no pads — a worrisome pause in the progression toward the season. With games set to begin the weekend of Sept. 5, the conference said in Saturday’s statement, “We understand there are many questions regarding how this impacts schedules, as well as the feasibility of proceeding forward with the season at all.”

The Mountain West Conference announced Monday it would postpone football along with all fall sports, making it the second of 10 leagues in the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision to do so after the Mid-American Conference on Saturday. Also Monday, two Virginia universities, Old Dominion and James Madison, announced they would not play any NCAA-sanctioned sports in the fall. Both compete in Division I, and the Dukes’ football program is a national power in the second-tier Football Championship Subdivision.

Against that backdrop, college football players, including stars Trevor Lawrence of Clemson and Justin Fields of Ohio State, spoke forcefully, stating Sunday that the season should be saved and urging players to unite in a players association. The message from players highlighted one of the unforeseen residual effects of the pandemic: college football players accessing their untapped reservoir of power. It began with a unity group from the Pac-12 that last week expressed concerns about the pandemic as well as players’ rights.

On Sunday night, players shared a social media message that arose from a video conference call and featured #WeWantToPlay and #WeAreUnited hashtags. Lawrence, a quarterback who is projected to be the top pick in the 2021 NFL draft, said players could be less likely to catch the virus on campus than at home.

“People are at just as much, if not more risk, if we don’t play,” Lawrence wrote on Twitter. “Players will all be sent home to their own communities where social distancing is highly unlikely and medical care and expenses will be placed on the families if they were to contract [the virus].

“Not to mention the players coming from situations that are not good for them/their future and having to go back to that. Football is a safe haven for so many people. We are more likely to get the virus in everyday life than playing football.

“Having a season also incentivizes players being safe and taking all of the right precautions to try to avoid contracting [the virus] because the season/teammates safety is on the line. Without the season, as we’ve seen already, people will not social distance or wear masks and take proper precautions.”

Fields tweeted his belief that “there’s been too much work put in!!” to cancel the season.

Others echoed the players’ call to play Monday, if not necessarily their desire to form a players association.

Trump, who throughout the pandemic has called for students to return to school, tweeted: “The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled. #WeWantToPlay.” Less than an hour later, he tweeted: “Play College Football!”

Vice President Pence weighed in Monday night, tweeting: “America needs College Football! It’s important for student-athletes, schools, and our Nation. These Great athletes have worked their whole lives for the opportunity [to] compete on the college gridiron and they deserve the chance to safely get back on the field! #WeWantToPlay”

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) drafted a letter to Big Ten presidents, a copy of which was obtained by Sports Illustrated and shared on Twitter on Monday morning, arguing against canceling the season and citing Lawrence and Fields.

“Life is about tradeoffs,” wrote Sasse, a former president of Nebraska’s Midland University, which competes athletically in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. “There are no guarantees that college football will be completely safe. … But the structure and discipline of football programs is very likely safer than what the lived experience of 18-to-22-year-olds will be if there isn’t a season.”

Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-Ga.) tweeted, “College universities and athletic conferences need to put politics aside and come together to find a way to safely play college football this season.” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a former assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State, tweeted, “America needs college football.”

Alabama Coach Nick Saban echoed the sentiment that players would be safer on campus with their teams than not. Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh issued a statement arguing that the season could be safely played “if you are transparent and follow the rules.”

Nebraska Coach Scott Frost appeared to go further in his desire to play, saying at a news conference: “Our university is committed to playing no matter what, no matter what that looks like and how that looks. … We certainly hope it’s in the Big Ten. If it isn’t, I think we’re prepared to look for other options.”

The official Twitter accounts of the Michigan and Ohio State football programs retweeted statements of support for playing this fall.

The comments by Lawrence and Fields were part of a two-pronged stance. Using the hashtags on Twitter and the logos of the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC and Big 12, players Sunday night took their message further than just a desire to play, urging the creation of a College Football Players Association with player representatives from the Power Five conferences. A previous attempt at unionizing, originating with Northwestern players, stalled in 2015 when the National Labor Relations Board issued a unanimous decision that players were not university employees.

With a graphic designed by Dallas Hobbs, a 6-foot-6, 285-pound defensive end at Washington State, the players’ message stated “we all want to play football this season” and listed their demands. “Establish universal mandated health & safety procedures and protocols to protect college-athletes against covid-19 among all conferences throughout the NCAA. Give players the opportunity to opt out and respect their decision. Guarantee eligibility whether a player chooses to play the season or not. Use our voices to establish open communication and trust between players and officials; ultimately create a College Football Players Association [that’s] representative of the players of all Power 5 conferences.”

The social media push was the result of a video conference call earlier Sunday in which players discussed the message they sought to send, according to reports. Besides Lawrence, Fields and Hobbs, others attending were Clemson’s Darien Rencher; Alabama’s Najee Harris; Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard; Stanford’s Dylan Boles; Utah’s Nick Ford; Michigan’s Hunter Reynolds; and Oregon’s Penei Sewell, Johnny Johnson III, Jevon Holland and Kayvon Thibodeaux.

“The beautiful thing is now we’re all on the same page,” Boles told ESPN. “We made history tonight.”

Boles said he received a direct message on Twitter on Sunday evening from Rencher, who was seeking to talk about the Pac-12 unity movement in which Boles was involved. Last week, Boles and around 400 players in the conference published their demands and said they planned to boycott practice and potentially games if conference officials were unwilling to meet with them.

“We got down to talking and agreed that both of our goals are aligned with each other,” Boles said. “We all want to play this year. We just want to make sure players have a say in this thing.”

As some players around the country opted out of the season, those who wish to play began retweeting the statement Sunday night, often with commentary.

“If opting-out is ok,” Pittsburgh defensive end Rashad Weaver wrote, referring to those who have chosen to forgo the season, “then opting-in should hold just as much weight.”

Leon O’Neal Jr., a safety at Texas A&M, wrote, “Our conference has more than enough money to protect us players.”

Some players took that tack of extolling university medical staffs. Baylor quarterback Charlie Brewer wrote: “I speak on behalf of myself and our team. We trust our medical staff here at Baylor University, and we believe they are going to put us in the best position possible to be safe.”

Louisville quarterback Evan Conley wrote, “Being in the football facility is honestly when I feel safest from COVID.”

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