Will there be a college football season in 2020? How can it be safety played? What are the major issues?
College presidents, athletic directors, commissioners, and all those in charge of the very, very weird world of sports at major American universities have had almost four months to figure out how to get college football going in the age of a global pandemic.
And they’re on the verge of totally blowing it.
I honestly thought that raw greed – combined with the economic survival of various athletic departments – would’ve been enough motivation to generate a more innovative plan than hoping the bad virus thingy would just go away.
But there’s still time. There’s not a lot, but there’s some.
Yes, there still might be a college football season like normal, and if that doesn’t happen, there’s still a shot at playing in some way. However, reality is starting rain down on ADs and conference commissioners like an anvil, and they’re borrowing an umbrella from Wile E. Coyote.
So to sum up every radio appearance I’ve been on over the last four months, and just about every other conversation I’ve had with the outside world, let’s do this …
Will there be a college football season?
Short answer, yes, but it won’t be anything like normal. There’s no way the schedule will go off without several hitches and changes along the way.
It might be a season of eight or so games, it might start a little later, and there will definitely be twists and turns along the way. No matter what, the athletic directors will have to fight every instinct that made them major college athletic directors and be flexible on the fly.
But yes, I actually do think that at least some teams will be playing college football in the fall. I’ll get into this more at the end.
But how? How can college football be safely played?
It’s the same thing I’ve been saying since mid-March. It can be done, but you’re not going to like the answer.
All players and coaches have to be tested, quarantined, and isolated from the rest of humankind for the entirety of the college football season.
That’s it. That’s the deal, and at this late stage of the game, it’s non-negotiable.
Start August 1, get practices up and rolling, and go on through the first week of December. It’s only four months, and it’s going to go by in a snap.
It’s not for forever. It’s just to get through this 2020 season and then everyone can reassess.
To buy into what has to be done, though, everyone has to get rid of the notion that the game of football can be changed to protect players from the virus.
This can’t be played without gatherings on the field, on the sidelines, and in the locker room. This can’t be played without collisions, and without sweat and spit flying all over the place. This can’t be tweaked to adapt to the normal guidelines that everyone else is supposed to adhere to.
No, the only way this flies is if all the players and coaches on the field are as clean as can be reasonably asked for from the tests currently available. That means no going out, no going to bars or parties, and no going out into the world.
It stinks. It all stinks. It’s all bad. But if you want to play college football this season, this is how it has to work. Any other way will guarantee a shutdown or a disruption of some sort, and …
Whatever. They’re not going to lock down and quarantine everyone. So now what?
There doesn’t appear to be any other practical plan in place.
Say it’s the night before Georgia vs. Alabama and three Crimson Tide players test positive. Yes, they get isolated, and yes, they’ll probably be okay, but Georgia isn’t going to want to play unless it knows that everyone on the other side tested negative and hasn’t come directly in contact with the affected players.
That’s going to be logistically tougher than it might seem.
Then, you have to trace back to Georgia State – who Alabama will have played the week before – and then back to USC from the opening weekend, and anyone those two teams came into contact with.
And then what happens to the Kent State game for Bama a week later, and the date at Ole Miss after that if everyone has to quarantine for 14 days?
Again, better to lock down everyone from the get-go then shut it all down in the middle of the season.
And I know exactly what’s coming next from an all-too-sizable portion of the public.
These are 18-to-22-year-olds in peak condition. If they get it, they’re almost certainly going to be fine, and …
Yeah, but there’s something different about college football in a that’s-someone’s-son sort of way.
Are you 1000% certain that every player who gets this won’t have any lingering, life-altering effects?
Are you 1000% certain that some NFL talent won’t see his lung capacity decrease by just enough to keep him from being at the elite level he needs to play at?
Are you 1000% certain that no player will die from COVID-19 if a season is played like normal?
Even if you believe this is all overblown and the media is pedaling fear porn, the reality is that when people get this, things shut down. You might not agree, and you might think it’s an overreaction, but that’s the deal.
Also, remember, there’s one gaping difference here between college football and the pro sports. The college football players don’t have any representation.
Pro athletes have a union, agents, and people getting paid a whole lot of money to look out for their best interests. If there’s a collectively bargained agreement, then the players have to trust that the people in charge are trying to keep them safe.
College football players don’t have that, so there’s a massive moral problem when unpaid – we can get into the whole compensation side another time – athletes are taking a health risk for the love of the game.
How can there be college football if there aren’t students on campus as normal?
No students on campus is a positive.
If players aren’t locked down for the season in an athletic dorm, the fewer people on campus, the less chance of an outbreak.
If everyone is taking classes remotely, then so can college football players – they can just do it in a dorm on campus. In this case, this might be the one time when college football players really will be like every other student.
There will be grad students at most places – mainly because that’s where the schools make their real money – and many colleges will still have lab classes that have to be done in person. It’s not different for college football, which …
Yeah, but wouldn’t playing college football when most of the students aren’t on campus be a really, really bad look?
I’ve never quite understood this argument.
Is it a bad look when college basketball teams on a run to the Final Four have almost a whole month of normal college life disrupted and changed?
People would get past this in a hurry.
If you haven’t figured out that major college football players are different than normal students, and if you haven’t realized how insane the entire system is, then please don’t get all weird now about the hypocrisies across the board when it comes to major college athletics.
To be cynical, once the ball is kicked off, no one will really care about the optics. To be even more ugly – because presidents at most schools will have to justify not cutting tuition costs for online schooling – football might be forced to be played in an attempt to keep up morale.
What about just waiting until the spring?
Why is the spring going to be any better?
Forgetting that you lose all the NFL talents who won’t be able to leave the college scene fast enough, what’s going to change?
It’s still a long shot that a vaccine will be ready. More directly, if the powers-that-be haven’t figured out how to do this over the last four months, what light bulb is going to turn on in February?
With that said – and PLEASE keep your dopey political opinions in your pocket – the one game-changer could be the election. There might be a very, very different set of rules, guidelines and national protocols to follow in 2021 depending on who wins.
While we’re on this, it’ll be fascinating to see how college football is about get politicized.
Don’t underestimate what a gigantic PR win it would be for the current administration and elected officials in football-mad states if there’s football being played in late October and early November, and don’t dismiss what a colossal political disaster it will be if there isn’t.
So why haven’t athletic directors been sharper about coming up with a plan?
1) There’s no Roger Goodell-type at the top to centralize everything, because 2) the NCAA has zero interest in getting into the liability game and is punting to the conferences, which means 3) the conferences have to deal with various schools and various states with various governors with various sets of rules.
You want to try figuring out college football at the immediate moment in Texas, or Arizona, or in several of the SEC states?
Ten FBS conferences, ten conference commissioners – that doesn’t include Notre Dame – and they’re all looking to not make a mistake.
And then there’s harsh reality of the biggest killer for the schools …
No fans in the stands.
There’s a thought that if there’s not enough money being made off of playing football, then there’s no real point in moving heaven and earth to get a season going.
The NFL makes most of its money off of TV revenue, marketing and licensing. Most college athletic departments sink or swim depending on the football attendance.
That’s why coaches are only truly on a hot seat if there’s a dip in the ticket sales – or in donations. A coach can keep losing, but as long as the butts are in the seats, he’s got a shot at sticking around.
Of course there’s TV revenue for the colleges if football is played, but it’s not nearly as big a deal as it is for the NFL.
Okay, so make the call. What’s really going to happen?
To end on a positive note, I really do think there will be college football, and I really do want to believe it can be done responsibly.
Once it’s really on, and everyone realizes what’s at stake, they’ll lock things down on their own.
However, first get ready for the real gut-punch – few, if any, colleges will have undergraduate students back like normal.
What’s the worst possible idea on the planet right now? Take a smallish-to-midsized American town with limited hospital resources and bring in tens of thousands of people from all over the world to jam into confined spaces.
What do college kids do when they get away from home with a chance at freedom? One house party later, and uh oh.
Relating all of that to college football, conference commissioners can say there won’t be fall sports if the students aren’t back on campus, but not all schools are going have the same issues.
Indiana recently tested all the athletes on campus and didn’t get one positive result. Michigan retested everyone and had just the two positives from a few weeks before.
A college football season might have to be dealt with on a school-by-school, moment-by-moment basis, even within conferences.
Once we get to the 11th hour on the go or no-go for a launch – total guess here – watch out for one conference to go rogue and decide to keep things in-house with a league-only schedule – each conference will create its own set of protocols, rules and guidelines – and then everyone else will quickly follow, or not.
But it’ll happen. There’s going to be college football in some way.
It’s college. Everyone is cramming at the last moment for the exam.