University of Alabama president Stuart Bell says there will be a college football season in Tuscaloosa this fall, despite the coronavirus pandemic. He says further, as reported by an Alabama television station, that “our plan is that we will have a football season and fans will be a part of it in our stadium.”
Scattered school administrators at other schools have indicated similar designs.
University of Iowa president Bruce Harreld says his school’s football team will be “back to practice” by June 1. Thereafter, he clarifies that “our first priority is the health and safety of our student-athletes and fans.”
Here’s the question: What if those two intentions are incompatible?
As optimistic as we’re all trying to be around here, around there and around everywhere, it still appears college football in 2020 is in trouble due to the virus crisis, and if college football is in trouble, college sports are in trouble.
While pro sports leagues might — might — be able to configure some way to centralize their games, to play them in front of no spectators, automated cameras beaming the action to hungry fans gathered around their television screens, college football, along with TV money, depends heavily on revenue generated from the gate.
And if fans, regardless of what Bell and Harreld say, can’t reasonably attend games, causing too much risk for the spread of disease, where does that leave the games themselves?
COVID-19 can kill games, too.
Some conferences are more hellbent on keeping college football running than others. The SEC, for example. Everybody, every league would like to play, needs to play. But the need may not overcome those medical facts, facts that indicate large gatherings present too great a harm to the public. Freedom is good and all, football might be religion in some regions, but not if those who exercise it and put their faith in it end up in bed for three weeks, or sentence others to similar or even worse fates. Too many people already have died from the pandemic, and crowds at football games would — could very well — add to the tally.
College football is great, but it is not to die for.
So now, for those less sure than Bell and Harreld, alternatives have been and are being considered for a season that is slated to start at the end of August, practices long before. As each day goes by, new information to analyze arrives, and that information ultimately should determine whether the games will be played as scheduled, truncated into a shorter schedule, or postponed for months, pushed back maybe into spring 2021.
All of that is complicated by the entire shutdown of campuses around the country, and if campuses are deemed unsafe for students, what then would be the justification for football players being called into practice for games against other teams from schools with empty campuses? One word: money.
That cannot, in this case, or in any other, be a good enough reason.
Potential courses of action include school teams playing only conference games, a suggestion that gets cluttered on a number of levels, especially for a school like BYU which has no league, no league games. But even for programs in conferences, such a scenario is clouded by the fractured nature of college football.
Almost all conferences span different states, and different states are governed by different policies and leaders who are coming to varying conclusions about the ideal course for those within their separate stewardships. If the Pac-12 decided it wanted to play only league games, what if California governor Gavin Newsom and other state and school leaders came to the conclusion that it is too risky?
What if the Arizona schools could play, the Oregon and Washington and Utah and Colorado schools could play, but USC, UCLA, Stanford and Cal couldn’t play? What then?
Same with every other league.
Moreover, what if all minds came together in agreement to start their seasons, in whatever form, on time and then the second wave of COVID-19, predicted by so many top medical officials, hits midseason?
Would the season take an intermission? And if it did, what would the mechanics be for a proper restart?
If the season were shoved back into, say, February and ran into May, how then would that affect the 2021 season, particularly for the athletes themselves, many of whom need time for their bodies to recover from one campaign to the next?
Even if some form of the season was not postponed, what measures would have to be taken to protect the players from the virus? There is no social distancing in football. Would that require all players to be tested, and if they were to be tested, how often would that testing need to take place? All of that against a backdrop of others in the community who need to be tested and who, at times, find that testing, even for those with symptoms, to be less than available.
Maybe medicines will be found and safely proved to be effective against COVID-19. But that prospect would have to hurry up.
College football is in jeopardy, no matter how optimistic anyone wants to be, no matter how desperate schools and teams and athletic departments and conferences are for the money, the opportunities, those games provide.
Public health — and the health of the players — has to be the top priority, no matter how much we want or need college football to happen. Justifying it for any other reasons is neither safe nor sane.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 2-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.