Opinion: If this college football season actually happens, all players will deserve a ring

Gentry Estes
Nashville Tennessean

We’ve reached the point in the pandemic where Lane Kiffin stands as a voice of reason.

The first-year coach at Mississippi, is challenging his players to do the right things socially and away from the football facility to limit potential exposure to COVID-19.

But at the same time, “I think you've got to be realistic,” Kiffin said Monday. 

“Everyone can pretend it happens away from here.But they've got to go out of their way to do it because other kids aren't doing it — and adults. … If people think people are doing this well, open your eyes. This ain't kids. I mean, adults don't do it. Just drive through downtown (Oxford) and look around or look at pictures on the internet of other places.”

If this college football season actually does start and finish as the SEC, ACC and Big 12 are still hoping, we shouldn’t award championship rings to one team. Every single player will deserve one.

Just finishing this season is going to be as much of an accomplishment as any title run. These players would have done something that no players before them have even been asked to do and something that you couldn’t realistically expect. Call it maturity, yes, but also call it heroism that just doesn’t seem possible on the front end.

SCHEDULE SET:Ranking all the games on Week 1 of the SEC football season

STILL PLAYING:North Carolina football unaffected by move to online classes

Which is reflected in Kiffin’s frustration.

It’s one thing for coaches to enforce team rules. It’s another to have to ask players to have no social life, to sit in a dorm room or apartment until it's time to leave for practices and games, to ignore girlfriends and buddies, to resist being a typical college student on campuses where seemingly everyone else is having fun.

“It's going to be hard for me to enforce it. I don't live with them 24 hours a day,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “... Our kids do understand, and it comes down to decision-making.”

For all the hand-wringing about college football’s uncertain status, why hasn’t there been more debate about institutions bringing students back in the first place? If playing football isn’t safe in a relatively controlled environment, then why would classrooms and dorms — uncontrolled environments — somehow be OK?

Concerns took a backseat to very real, very urgent financial concerns over what universities’ bottom lines would look like if classrooms were empty, tuition wasn’t paid, residence halls weren’t full and university bookstores couldn’t sell anything.

In the academic community, opening campuses for in-person classes was viewed all summer as an essential step toward playing football. Yet paradoxically, doing that was always going to make it tougher to ensure a safe season for players unable to isolate like athletes in professional leagues.

Teams have been working out on relatively empty campuses for weeks, and there have still been bouts with COVID-19. The Vols have had 23 players test positive at one time or another, Pruitt said Monday.

“The frustrating part of this is you can be extremely careful, go through a drive-thru and somebody sneezes on your food and you can get coronavirus,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “I hate to say that, but that’s true. … We’re all at risk. Call it like it is. We need to limit the amount of exposure to the unknown, and that’s what we keep referencing to our players: Be around people you know.”

But as students return after being cooped up for months in a pandemic, you have to expect the virus will flourish as they cut loose a little bit.

Honestly, would you have resisted doing it at that age?

Yeah, me neither.

No one should be surprised by photos like the ones Sunday from Kiffin’s old town of Tuscaloosa that showed a long line of people — mostly without masks, adults as well as students — outside a bar. Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne tweeted in response, “Who wants college sports this fall? Obviously not these people!”

We should know by now that no amount of public shaming or guilt is going to prevent this from happening. Nick Saban couldn't even get these fans to wear masks. He tried. If the prospect of losing college football season doesn’t make fans act right in Tuscaloosa, where would it?

At Tennessee, as students returned for the fall semester in Knoxville, the school on Thursday announced 28 active cases. And that was after only a few days. The number is probably going to get worse before it gets better.

On Monday, the same day that SEC teams started preseason practices and the league announced dates for its trimmed 2020 football schedule, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill moved all undergraduate classes online in response to COVID-19 outbreaks while also saying it would try to decrease residence hall occupancy.

Earlier, a scathing editorial by the Daily Tar Heel student newspaper had fired the following at the school’s administration: “We’re angry — and we’re scared. We’re tired of the gaslighting, tired of the secrecy, tired of being treated like cash cows by a University with such blatant disregard for our lives.”

You’d like to believe UNC is going to be an isolated case, but with so few students at all campuses willing to isolate much at all, it’s not going to be.

These next few weeks are going to test the resolve and leadership at many universities, along with their football programs. With a season's hopes already in peril, it wouldn't take much. But it would be especially disheartening for football coaches and players to be doing all the right things to play and then not be able to because of the actions of students that have nothing to do with the program.

That's where we are, though, and those coaches have to realize it — along with the fact that like so much with this virus, it's going to be largely out of their control.

The treacherous road to this college football season isn't getting any easier.