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James Franklin, Penn State players and parents publicly fight to save fall football season

DEREK LEVARSE
(Wilkes-Barre) Times-Leader (TNS)
James Franklin

Days after the Big Ten put together a TV special to announce its football schedule and allowed teams to open training camp, the conference’s presidents may be on the verge of pulling the plug on the season.

Multiple national reports have indicated that college football is on the precipice of being postponed until the spring because of the coronavirus crisis, and the Big Ten may end up being the first domino to fall.

On Monday morning, veteran commentator Dan Patrick reported on his radio show that the Big Ten and Pac-12 could publicly throw in the towel as early as Tuesday. In the afternoon, the Detroit Free Press reported that the Big Ten season will be canceled.

The Big Ten said Monday that “no vote has been held by our presidents and chancellors.”

Patrick, however, said the presidents voted 12-2 in favor of canceling the season.

Penn State coach James Frankin joined Big Ten colleagues like Ohio State’s Ryan Day and Nebraska’s Scott Frost in publicly advocating to play the season as scheduled.

“I love our players & believe it is my responsibility to help them chase their dreams, both collectively & individually,” Franklin wrote on Twitter. “I am willing to fight WITH them & for our program!”

Spring season? Should the unprecedented step be taken, details on a potential spring semester season are unknown. It hasn’t been a popular topic of conversation thus far among schools, with Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour calling it “a last resort” earlier this summer.

Penn State and much of the Big Ten had opened training camp as scheduled on Friday, with Lions players going through drills with helmets but no pads. As an added precaution, all players are wearing full face shields — think of a visor that extends down to cover the face mask. Coaches and staffers are also wearing face coverings at all times.

Last week, the conference finalized a flexible, 10-game conference-only schedule for each team that had Penn State opening play on Sept. 5 against Northwestern at Beaver Stadium. The Lions’ five home games were set to be played with no fans, pending a change in Pennsylvania’s restrictions on large gatherings.

Dominoes falling: Over the weekend, however, the MAC became the first FBS conference to cancel fall football. Financial considerations were as pivotal as health concerns in that decision, as the Big Ten and other leagues had canceled non-conference games, which would deprive MAC programs of millions of dollars.

UConn and Old Dominion have also canceled their Football Bowl Subdivision seasons.

The Big Ten also announced that teams would not be able to move to the next phase of camp — full practices with pads — until further notice. It was the first serious sign that a fall season could be in jeopardy.

Players take to social media: For their part, many of Penn State’s veteran players took to social media over the weekend to plead for the season to go on.

Tight end Pat Freiermuth, quarterbacks Sean Clifford and Will Levis, offensive linemen Michal Menet and Will Fries, kickers Jake Pinegar and Jordan Stout, defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, running back Noah Cain and linebacker Jesse Luketa were among the Lions to make #WeWantToPlay posts.

“Since day one coming back to campus the Penn State Football staff and medical experts have put our health and safety first, above anything else,” wrote Freiermuth, who likely doesn’t need to play in 2020 to be a high draft pick in 2021. “The guidelines put into place keep us safe while playing the game we love. We are ready to play and we want to play.”

The hashtag has since been turned into a nationwide movement by players from each Power 5 conference looking to organize a players association to work toward a fall season with the NCAA. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, potentially one of the top picks in the next NFL draft, is the highest-profile player involved.

Parents weigh in: At Penn State, it’s more than just the players hoping to make a final effort to sway the opinion of Big Ten decision-makers.

Freiermuth’s mother, Dianne, released a statement on behalf of the Penn State Football Parents Association in support of playing the season.

“Our sons are regularly tested and contact tracing protocols have been developed to ensure player safety as well as parent confidence,” wrote Dianne Freiermuth, who serves as the president of the group. “A small number of athletes have been quarantined and isolated as an appropriate response to a positive test result.

“I truly believe that these young men are being cared for physically and mentally in a manner that could not be replicated in their own homes.”

Since players in multiple sports began returning to campus in early June, Penn State has reported a total of eight positive tests for COVID-19 among all athletes. That number is two weeks old, with an update scheduled for Wednesday.

According to Dianne Freiermuth, parents of players have been in regular contact with “James Franklin, team doctors, trainers, strength and conditioning coaches as well as sports performance staff since March” through video calls, adding that players have not been pressured to play and families were made aware of the process to opt out.

“The players want to play this season,” she wrote. “While risk can never be eliminated, Penn State has minimized this risk and the season can be played in a safe manner.

“While I respect the viewpoint of others who may feel differently about the upcoming season, I have full trust in the decisions made by our football coaches and staff.”