Alabama coach Nick Saban, along with two of his star players, pushed back Monday on the narrative that players are more at risk of contracting the coronavirus if the college football season is played this fall.
"I want to play, but I want to play for the players' sake, the value they can create for themselves," Saban told ESPN. "I know I'll be criticized no matter what I say, that I don't care about player safety. Look, players are a lot safer with us than they are running around at home. We have around a 2% positive ratio on our team since the Fourth of July. It's a lot higher than that in society. We act like these guys can't get this unless they play football. They can get it anywhere, whether they're in a bar or just hanging out."
With the 2020 college football season potentially hanging by a thread, as both the Big Ten and Pac-12 are reportedly close to canceling their seasons, Saban said he doesn't understand the rush to shut everything down right now.
"It's going to be a challenge when the other students get on campus, and I get that," Saban said. "But we really don't know what that entails until it happens. It's a big reason we pushed the season back [in the SEC], to assess that, which is the prudent way to do it."
Alex Leatherwood, Alabama's All-American offensive tackle, said the players should have the opportunity to be heard before any final decisions are made.
"There's a lot of noise and bad stuff out there about playing football with the virus going on, but I haven't really seen anything about what the players want," Leatherwood told ESPN. "We've been grinding all summer, and you don't want it to be all for nothing.
"The story that needs to be written is that we want to play."
Saban said that Alabama tests its players at the beginning of each week and that he brings in an epidemiologist to talk to his team every two weeks.
"We also test anybody that has symptoms and have an open testing site where they can go and get tested as many times as they want or anytime they feel like they need to," Saban said. "But our guys aren't going to catch [the virus] on the football field. They're going to catch it on campus. The argument then should probably be, 'We shouldn't be having school.' That's the argument. Why is it, 'We shouldn't be playing football?' Why has that become the argument?"
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney expressed a similar sentiment Monday, telling reporters, "This is the safest environment that we can have our guys. Without a doubt ... as opposed to letting these guys all leave and go home and be in these environments where they're not getting tested ... every single week. They don't have the type of sanitized environment that we have here, mitigated environment that we have here."
Saban met with his leadership council on Monday and held a team meeting later in the day.
"It's more important than ever to engage your players, and if you're not, then you're not doing your job as a coach," said Saban, who has regularly brought in speakers to address his team.
In fact, since George Floyd was killed on May 25 while in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Alabama players have heard from the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Stephen A. Smith, Charles Barkley and Tony Dungy, and have had a chance to ask questions.
"Coach Saban listens to his players and wants to hear from us first," Alabama senior running back Najee Harris told ESPN. "He told us that none of this is about him, but it's about us. He wants to hear our concerns, and we made it clear that we want to play and feel like Alabama is doing everything they can to make sure we can play safely."
Harris told ESPN that he would be willing to sign a waiver and agree not to sue the university if he were to contract the virus. He was part of a Zoom call on Sunday that included approximately 30 key players from all of the Power 5 conferences. He said the overwhelming sentiment was that they wanted to play as long as all of the conferences followed the same testing protocol and that players wishing to opt out would not lose their scholarships.
"We want our voices to be heard," Harris said. "Our main demand on the call was that we as players know the players we're playing against have all gone through the same testing guidelines, but we want to play."
Harris, who's from Antioch, California, said he feels safer at Alabama with all of its medical support staff and precautions than he does at home.
Leatherwood added, "We take risks every single day, especially in this sport, and life shouldn't stop. If there is a chance for long-term effects if you get it and people don't feel comfortable, then don't play. Everybody is entitled to their right. But we want to play, and we're going to play."
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey tweeted that patience should be used when deciding whether to play football during the coronavirus pandemic.
Best advice I've received since COVID-19: "Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you'll gain better information each day." @SEC has been deliberate at each step since March...slowed return to practice...delayed 1st game to respect start of fall semester..— Greg Sankey (@GregSankey) August 10, 2020
...Deveoped testing protocols...We know concerns remain. We have never had a FB season in a COVID-19 environment. Can we play? I don't know. We haven't stopped trying. We support, educate and care for student-athletes every day, and will continue to do so...every day.— Greg Sankey (@GregSankey) August 10, 2020
"At the end of our discussion, I asked if they wanted to play football and the answer was a resounding YES," Plowman said.