ROSEMONT, Ill. — In the long shadow of Chicago’s skyline, they gathered to act out their own version of "The Last Dance." Call it the Last Chance.
Within a stone’s throw of Big Ten headquarters, parents and other family members of conference football players from Ohio State, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin — and a mother of an Illini women’s soccer player — showed up to peacefully protest against how the conference handled its decision to cancel fall sports. It was one last chance to try to change minds.
I counted 26 moms and dads, many wearing replica jerseys with the same number worn by their sons. I did not see St. Jude, the patron of lost causes. The protesters could have used him, given that Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren released a letter on Wednesday that made it clear the decision by the conference’s presidents to cancel would not be revisited.
The letter took air out of the protest balloon. The assembly became more about holding the conference accountable going forward — not that everyone stayed on message. Andrea Tate, mother of Ohio State cornerback Sevyn Banks, forcefully called for the conference to immediately reinstitute a fall season. But for the most part, parents agreed, that ship has sailed.
Protest organizer Randy Wade, the father of Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade, stressed that what is important now is that the Big Ten share details of what a winter/spring or even a fall 2021 season might look like.
"The coronavirus is the new norm, and it may not change," said Wade, who is calling for Warren to meet via video conference with all 14 football parents associations, as well as conference athletic directors, to clarify where safety measures stand.
To that end, everyone at the protest wore masks, except when standing at the microphone addressing the media. It was civil unrest, heavy on civil. The only tiny demonstration drama came when police instructed everyone to walk about 500 feet down the street, away from Big Ten headquarters, to an area covered, appropriately enough, by artificial turf.
Wade had hoped 100 or more parents would show up, and was disappointed that not even a handful of Buckeyes fans bothered to attend. But after flying from his home near Jacksonville, Florida, he was thankful for the parents who did show, most having driven from Chicago suburbs.
What they found upon arrival was a closed headquarters and no audience with Warren, although Wade acknowledged that meeting with the commissioner in person likely was never going to happen.
"No one has been here for months," Wade said, motioning toward the headquarters, operating like much of the country from employees’ homes.
But if protesting within view of the B1G sign attached to the building was mostly symbolic, the parental frustration was real. Lest anyone take parental passion for granted, be warned: Hell hath no fury like the mother of a scorned college athlete. And not just football mamas, either.
Noreen Murphy had that look in her eyes that says, "Mess with my daughter and you mess with me." The mother of Illinois soccer player Eileen Murphy described the Big Ten decision as "draconian" in its finality.
"There just doesn’t seem to be a lot of want-to," Murphy said of the Big Ten’s effort.
What should not be lost here is that conference presidents have bigger fish to fry than fall sports, including money-making football. Consider the mess at hand caused by COVID-19, with some schools allowing students on campus while others are opting for classes to be taught online.
You want angry parents? Try convincing them that $25,000 in tuition is worth it when their child’s college experience amounts to virtual learning from home. The demand for refunds and threat of lawsuits threaten the very existence of traditional higher education.
But that does not mean parents of college athletes are wrong to protest. Frankly, I would be surprised if they didn’t. As Wade correctly put it, parents are the only ones who truly have their children’s best interests at heart. That does not mean some parents aren’t pushing their own agenda, but let’s not hate on the vast majority who are not.
As for parents crossing the line into obnoxiousness, yes it happens, but more troubling is the Big Ten cloaking its decision-making in mystery. The presidents need to push past fear of political fallout and publicly walk us through their thinking and processing. This is a pandemic in need of shared information, not a playbook that needs to be hidden from the eyes of next week’s opponent. It’s not us against them. It’s everyone against the damn virus.
In the grand scheme, Friday’s protest felt puny. But even a single alternative voice brings needed texture to a controversial topic like whether to move forward with sports or shut them down.
And just because a voice is angry does not make it insensitive. The most emotional moment Friday came when Wade led the group in 17 seconds of silence to remember the 170,000 who have died from COVID-19 in the United States.
"A lot of people think we parents are like cavemen. We understand it’s a pandemic," Wade said. "When we say ‘Let us play,’ we mean, ‘Show us transparency.’ We mean, ‘Communicate.’ We mean, ‘Our kids are important to us.’"
Important enough to show up and protest when it would have been easier to stay home.