As college football prepares to play in the midst of a global pandemic, players around the country are beginning to voice concerns for their health and safety. In recent days and weeks, players from both the Pac-12 and Big Ten have sent letters to their respective conferences outlining demands that need to be met before they will take the field this fall.
Those demands range from wholly centered around the COVID-19 virus and how individual schools and conferences are handling it, to social justice initiatives and changes student-athletes feel need to be made.
On Wednesday, the NCAA Board of Governors laid out requirements that schools and conferences must meet if championships are to happen this fall. One of those requirements is the honoring of athletic scholarships should a student-athlete opt out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That prompted a statement from American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco on Thursday morning that confirmed his league would follow that guidance and honor scholarships for opting out players.
At ECU, the Pirates are marching toward an Aug. 29 game against Marshall that will open the 2020 football season in Greenville, North Carolina. Only once has the school had to pause on-campus athletic activities due to a small outbreak of the virus, keeping them on track to play football this fall. In a recent Zoom meeting with reporters, head football coach Mike Houston credited his staff and players with doing a better job each and every day in regards to dealing with protocols in place to protect them from COVID.
Houston also said he has had conservations with his team about some of the stuff going on in the world right now, and encourages his players to voice any concerns they have about anything.
“I don’t know the dynamics at any other school,” Houston said. “The only thing I know is our dynamics here. I care about our young men tremendously. I want them to be safe. I want them to have confidence in the things we’re doing. I think sometimes there’s frustration with just how strict and conservative the protocols are, but those parameters are in place to protect the players. I think the players here know that they always have a conduit. A place they can voice — coming to me at any time about anything. I’m constantly in dialogue with those guys, with our leadership council, and I really push them to be direct and be honest. Always voicing how you feel about things, we try to do that also.”
Already, at least five notable college football players have opted out of the upcoming season, a trend that could grow as the campaign draws closer. So far, no AAC players have gone public with their desire to opt out, including at ECU, where Houston said his players just want to play.
“At the end of the day, each and every one of them has to make those decisions about what they want to do,” Houston said. “From everything that I’ve gotten from them, they’re dead set that they want to play football.”
Six practices into their preseason schedule, the Pirates are taking an off day from practice and workouts on Thursday to rest and recover. Houston said it is likely they will still have meetings and go over some film ahead of practice on Friday and a scrimmage in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on Saturday.
Up until Wednesday, all AAC schools had been operating in the dark about what their schedules would look like this fall as the conference had yet to issue guidance. On Wednesday, the AAC revealed it would not be altering its conference slate and would allow member institutions to play up to four non-conferences if they so choose.
Still up in the air with only 23 days to go before its currently scheduled date, however, is the status of ECU’s season-opener against Marshall. Right now on for Aug. 29, there are on-going talks about shifting the game back to early or mid-September.
Throughout the off-season and even into preseason camp, clarity surrounding the schedule given the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic has always been scarce. Houston said lack of clarity on things like that has been the No. 1 most frustrating thing for his players thus far.
“I think the biggest thing that’s been frustrating to them is just wanting some clarity on: we’re playing this day at this time, we’re definitely playing,” Houston said. “There’s no muddy water or that kind of thing. That’s the stuff that gets frustrating is just needing something definitive as far as when we’re playing, how we’re doing things and just clearing that stuff up. I think that’s the biggest thing the kids want.”