NEW YORK, N.Y.- The definition of the word leadership is a simple one. CEO Kevin Kruse laid out a great explanation of the word, stating: “Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.” The “leadership” in college athletics has managed to achieve the complete opposite of this since the pandemic started and now the sudden crash of the college football season is a compilation of the incompetence that has been building for years.
College football has always been the wild west of the sports world. Schools jumping from conference to conference looking for the biggest payday. Coaches committing to their team one day and leaving the next. The amount of conference games vary from league to league. I won’t even get started with the playoff format. All of this division within the sport has largely been harmless in the grand scheme of things. But this looking out for oneself and one’s conference mentality that has become prevalent during a pandemic situation is coming back to bite the sport. The lack of a unifying voice has led to a mad scramble to try and save the sport this fall, with mixed messages getting sent out all over the place. Chaos has ensued and, in the end, the one’s hurt by the lack of leadership the most are the players and fans.
Let’s be realistic before we go any further: staging a college football season amidst a pandemic was a massive undertaking and potentially an impossible act. The complications that go into this choice are numerous, but that’s not an excuse for poor leadership. At this point, with the Big Ten and Pac-12 axing their seasons while the ACC, SEC and Big 12 try to push through, there’s already enough frustration from players, coaches and fans alike about how we ultimately got here, which was due mostly to a lack of preparedness, communication and unity.
When the pandemic first struck college sports and canceled March Madness as well as the entirety of the spring sports calendar, conference commissioners and athletic directors were on conference calls daily. This was designed to ensure every school and conference was on the same page moving forward in the hope that their golden goose could be saved. After months of these daily discussions, the first sign of dysfunction came to light from the Big Ten back in early July. Without telling anyone else, the wealthiest conference announced they were moving to a conference-only schedule this fall, catching the other four major leagues off guard. From there, it’s been every conference for themselves, with the ultimate example of lack of communication coming from the two southern conferences.
The ACC, still hoping to preserve their in-state SEC rivalry games like Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech and Clemson-South Carolina, announced their teams would be allowed to play one non-conference game. Just hours later, the SEC announced they were playing conference games only, eliminating the hope of rivalry games the ACC specifically made room for. It makes you think after having daily discussions for months, what was actually being talked about? Was there any planning at these meetings? Because the actions of the individual leagues themselves suggest that no real dialogues of substance took place at all.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith exacerbated these concerns with his comments Tuesday afternoon when discussing the news of the Big Ten officially canceling their fall football season.
When talking to the Big Ten Network, Smith said, “The science came to us so fast,” when trying to explain why the conference switched gears so quickly within the last week. This is an interesting statement to make because within this last week that Smith claims science provided such overwhelming evidence that a football season wasn’t feasible, the conference made two moves that indicated the opposite.
Last Wednesday, the conference announced their football schedule for all 14 teams, with the first game set for September 3rd between Ohio State and Illinois. While their wording in the schedule release was cautiously optimistic, their actions displayed a confidence that the season would begin on time. The second action that disputes Smith’s claim was that practices started for all teams in preparation for their season opener in less than a month. Teams like Ohio State and Penn State were in helmets and practice jerseys, ramping up for the start of the season that they thought was a definite.
It begs the asking of these questions then: Why did conferences release their schedules? Why were teams allowed to practice if the season was anything but guaranteed? Smith’s statement also raises another question, which is that what happened in the last six days coronavirus wise that gave the league enough concern to cancel the season? While the pandemic hasn’t improved much throughout the country, it certainly didn’t get any worse to make football impossible. It makes you wonder if college football’s leaders weren’t taking the virus seriously until recently.
There’s one final concern that comes with the decision to cancel the fall season and that’s the question of what happens next. We have gotten zero collective answers or clarity on essentially anything so far and that is unacceptable. The players’ hearts and feelings have been toyed with throughout this entire process and they rightfully deserve answers about their future. Some of those questions without any answers include:
- What will a spring season look like?
- When will a spring season kick off?
- Will an extra year of eligibility be granted for every player?
- Will the scholarship limit increase to accommodate for both returning players and incoming freshmen?
So far, the answer to every single one of these questions has been the same: “I don’t know.” It’s far from assuring that two of the five Power 5 conferences have already pulled the plug without a road map for what the next step is.
In a sport played by so-called amateurs, it would have been nice for the adults in the room to step up and lead the way. Even if a season ultimately proves to be impossible, the every man for themselves strategy that ensued over the last five months has been a direct indictment on the entire leadership structure in college football. As Kruse mentions, the practical implementation of leadership is maximizing the efforts of others to achieve a common goal. Can any president or conference commissioner look themselves in the mirror and say they lived up to this definition? Unlike every other question posed so far, we already know the answer to that one.