The Big Ten won’t play football again until it least this spring, but a season played later is as good as never for many of the players in the conference — including former Georgia quarterback Justin Fields. And the fact that the Big Ten didn’t put up more of a fight to give players such as Fields a chance to be on a gridiron this fall is a grotesque unfairness that should be long remembered.
Fields — who transferred to Ohio State after the 2018 season — has no reason to play spring football. He’ll almost certainly be a first-round pick in next April’s NFL draft.
His status is basically cemented. Even so, Fields apparently still loves college football. He was an outspoken leader of the #WeWantToPlay campaign. He was working to save a sport that’s important to him.
If only it was equally important to the administrators in his conference.
Of course, the Big Ten leadership would tell Fields they’ve paused football for the benefit of him and his fellow players. The league’s commissioner, Kevin Warren, tried to make that point clear Tuesday afternoon.
“The mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes has been at the center of every decision we have made regarding the ability to proceed forward,” Warren said.
In other words, Warren thinks he and his colleagues know best, and no amount of pleading will get them to change their mind — not even from the parents of the players he says he cares for.
Fields’ father, Pablo, was part of a group of Buckeyes parents who made it clear Sunday they wanted football — regardless of the challenges posed by the coronavirus.
“We strongly believe our sons want to play the upcoming season and have full trust the university and coaching staff along with the medical experts have found a safe way for that to occur,” the parents said in a statement shared on social media.
The conference’s university presidents apparently weren’t so confident.
No one can fault any program — be it in the Big Ten or anywhere else — from being concerned about the coronavirus.
There are undeniable challenges and possible risks associated with playing the sport this fall. However, Fields and the rest of the conference’s players must certainly be aware that other leagues seem motivated to lead the way in charting a healthy and safe way to play this fall, while the Big Ten wants to go down in history as the first Power 5 conference to surrender.
It’s easy to imagine Fields looking at the current scenario and thinking it would’ve been better had he stayed at UGA — especially considering some recent comments from SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.
“We’re going to keep moving along because what has been told to me by young men on our teams is they want an opportunity, they want a safe and healthy opportunity,” Sankey said Tuesday on the Dan Patrick Show of the conference’s continued pursuit towards a plan to play this season.
Critics of Sankey and the SEC will say the league’s reluctance to cancel is about stubbornness in the face of a global pandemic, and motivated by the greed of wanting the sport’s financial rewards at the expense of the players’ health.
Sankey sees it differently.
“Our medical advisory group has said, ‘yes,’ we can continue to go forward,” Sankey said. “Were that advice to change, it certainly would be a stopping point. But the indicators are we can right now do what we’re doing in a healthy way.”
Furthermore, it’s not just the leaders in the football-crazed SEC who are saying things such as this. The chairman of the ACC’s medical advisory team, Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease expert from Duke University, has recently made similar statements.
“We believe we can mitigate it down to a level that makes everyone safe,” Wolfe told Sports Business Daily. “Can we safely have two teams on the field? I would say yes. Will it be tough? Yes. Will it be expensive and lots of hard work? For sure. But I do believe you can sufficiently mitigate the risk of bringing COVID onto the football field or into the training room at a level that’s no different than living as a student on campus.”
There’s no guarantee that a season can take place for any conference, but at least some of the leagues are trying.
Can you imagine what Fields must think when he sees how hard other conferences are striving to get it done while the Big Ten folds its hand?
Of course, there could be UGA fans who find sympathy for Fields difficult to come by. After all, he left the Bulldogs and his departure wasn’t free from controversy. Yet the larger story around Fields’ decision to leave is as basic as it gets: players want to play.
Fields wasn’t playing for the Bulldogs as much as he would’ve liked in 2018, and now it seems he won’t be playing for anyone in 2020.
It’s not just Fields who loses in this scenario, by the way.
Soon enough, he’ll be a rich man, and his brief autumn hiatus might be a distant memory to him by then. However, the fans — either of the Bulldogs, Buckeyes or any other team — will always be left to wonder how good his career was going to be. It’s as if an entire chapter of college football’s history has been deleted before it was fully written.
The Big Ten takes the blame for that even though they aren’t the only Power Five conference punting on the fall season.
There’s just something appalling about the business-as-usual approach the Big Ten’s schools are taking on the academic side of things while shuttering athletics against the wishes of the players.
Nothing demonstrates that hypocrisy better than a recent statement from Purdue president Mitch Daniels.
In a recent article touting Purdue’s record enrollment, Daniels laid out his case for why attempting in-person instruction this fall — something most Big Ten schools are also planning for — was the right thing to do.
“If we don’t try, the damage is certain, including the damage to the community,” Daniels said. “We realize that despite everything we’ve done, we might be overwhelmed, like others have been. But it’s the right thing to do to try.”
In areas in which the Big Ten’s presidents are personally impacted, it seems they’re eager to try, but they couldn’t be bothered to grant the same opportunity to the student-athletes on their campus.
It’s probably too late for Fields to do anything about this, but hopefully, the next generation of elite quarterbacks are paying attention. Enter the Big Ten at your own risk.