Opinion: Uncertainty of starting college football on time grows as NCAA hands off hard questions
As the calendar turns to July, a month that is slated to bring the opening of college football preseason camps, social media feeds of coaches and administrators across the country have been filled with messages imploring fans to wear masks if they want the season to begin on time.
But the campaign to mask up is more than just a public service announcement. Instead, it’s a warning whose seriousness has started to dawn on weary athletic directors: If the current trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic does not change in the next two weeks, playing the college football season as scheduled is in significant peril.
In conversations with more than a dozen administrators, coaches and others intimately involved with college sports, all of whom spoke with USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity in order to provide their honest assessment, the level of uncertainty and alarm around the current situation has only grown in recent days.
Pervasive optimism that the college football season would start and finish on time has given way to nervousness as programs continue to see players with COVID-19 infections during voluntary workouts and multiple states have either slowed down or reversed some aspects of their reopening plans due to spiking case numbers. The idea of delaying college football to the spring, which was dismissed as a last resort a few months ago, is being revived in some corners as a legitimate option to buy time and give programs more tools to manage a situation that many administrators privately admit is unwieldy and uncertain. Meanwhile, some FBS conferences are actively engaged with banks on opening up lines of credit to guard against lost revenue, a key acknowledgment that schools fear a potential revenue wipeout this fall.
Ultimately, coaches and administrators still don’t know exactly what the next month will hold and whether a program can start contact practice without being overwhelmed by infections — which isn’t a very good sign on July 1 given initial expectations that the pandemic would die down in the summer and that accurate point-of-care testing would be widespread enough by now to test regularly.
Instead neither of those things have happened, and an industry that spent all spring saying time was on its side suddenly finds itself up against the clock. As one Power Five athletic director mused, the next month might be the most crucial in the modern history of college sports.
The challenges in navigating the next few weeks, not to mention the months to come, are almost innumerable. And yet they’ll have to be navigated under a fractured landscape that does not lend itself to nimbleness or consistency.
As one athletic director in the Midwest pointed out, it wasn’t until states within the SEC footprint started to open up in May that there was a strong push nationally to bring football players back to campus in June. It’s unclear what that will now mean in the near and medium-term future with the virus surging in SEC states like Florida, Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina, but the delusion of a relatively smooth transition back to sports has now been obliterated.
Even if the numbers in those states were stable, the reality of how difficult it’s going to be for programs to avoid constant disruptions has been laid bare by what happened at LSU, where at least 30 players have had to isolate due to either testing positive for COVID-19 or coming into contact with someone who tested positive at the local bars. A total of 37 Clemson players have tested positive. At Kansas State, workouts were shut down because of positive tests for players who are believed to have been infected at a party.
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Administrators have seen those numbers and are already worried about whether their schools have planned for enough quarantine space once campuses are fully opened to regular students. They also realize that despite significant measures to sanitize and socially distance when players are in the athletic facilities, you can only do so much to monitor and control who athletes are coming into contact with most of the day. You can ask players to reduce their social lives and stay inside as much as possible, but everyone knows it’s simply not realistic in a college setting.
Some schools are trying out a so-called pod system where smaller groupings of players (often based around where they live) are supposed to stay together when they’re outside the building. Just as an example, each pod would only have one quarterback, one running back, etc., so that if there was an infection during the season it would reduce the chance of an entire position group being wiped out for weeks at a time. It sounds good in theory, but the likelihood of that arrangement holding together effectively for five months seems small.
Contrary to popular belief among COVID-19 deniers, this isn’t about the death rate. Everyone recognizes that young, healthy athletes are highly unlikely to die if they contract the virus. But even if you can temporarily put aside the ever-present concern that a small number could have bad outcomes or the unknown long-term effects, the contagiousness of the virus and the issue of asymptomatic spread presents a practical problem of how you can coach, prepare and play without needing to isolate significant portions of your team.
And the concerns go well beyond football. Though it has received only a fraction of the attention due to the urgency of getting the football season started, basketball coaches are also concerned about the path forward, having seen the lengths to which the NBA is going to build a bubble and knowing that such measures simply won’t be possible for their sport.
One Power Five coach told me he wonders specifically about the hundreds of November and December games all over the country where major conference teams pay guarantees to mid- and low-majors. An SEC or ACC school will be financially able to test their players multiple times a week, but will the school from the Atlantic Sun or WAC that needs the $75,000 payday just to make its budget? That coach said there was “no way” he’d allow his team to be on the same floor as an opponent that wasn’t testing its players.
It would be helpful in the middle of a pandemic if the NCAA was structured in a way to establish standards on issues like testing or scheduling, but so far it has only operated in the realm of recommendations and best practices. It has left the hard questions to the conferences, which should have tackled those issues first and built a comprehensive plan to quickly transition the football season to the spring if the virus hadn’t been controlled by June. Instead, it got hung up on small-ball issues like recruiting and how often players could be on Zoom calls with their coaches.
There is, quite simply, no strong leader to answer these questions and forge a path forward. And the result is, after months of administrators and coaches working endlessly to put out potential fires, there’s less confidence on July 1 than on June 1 about what it’s going to take to get the season going.
Make no mistake: after weeks and weeks of delusion about having a semi-normal football season with packed stadiums, the mood around college sports has taken a decidedly pessimistic turn. As determined as schools have been to push forward and plan for a football season starting at the end of August, the data coming in over the next few weeks will be crucial in whether it’s even possible.
That’s why the push for masks has come so forcefully from so many corners of college sports. Let’s hope it’s not too late.