The clownishness of Dabo and Mike Gundy aside, coaches aren’t going to be the decision makers as to when the 2020 college football season gets greenlighted. That’s not to say their opinions won’t be taken into consideration in making that call, but it’s likely their input is going to be limited to the question of how much time their teams need to be made game ready.
But that’s not the only question athletic directors and, ultimately, school presidents, will have to weigh. At least as important will be the intake from team doctors and trainers.
The most qualified answer, though, comes from Tory Lindley, a senior associate athletic director at Northwestern and the president of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association. “I cannot believe we can do it in a truncated time period of what we already do from a practice standpoint,” he says. “That right now is the month of August. It would be difficult to believe it could be shorter than it has been for decades.” When they do return to campus, athletes will have a half-dozen inquiries from medical personnel waiting for them. That may include a coronavirus test, physical exam, strength evaluation and a health history from their time in quarantine. “Where they’ve been, who they’ve been in contact with” says Lindley, “And we’ve got to go in depth as to what level you have executed the strength program you’ve been given.”
… A football team environment is a natural incubator for the spread of any illness. For years, viral infections have incapacitated entire squads. College football practices include more than 120 players and another 75 staff members. “In the absence of there being a vaccine, it would be difficult to know we have eliminated any threat to exposure with the virus unless they are tested,” Lindley says.
All well and good, but, as we all know these days, for college athletics, the bottom line is the bottom line. And that means we’ll be getting a 2020 season in some form or fashion, because schools can’t afford otherwise.
For years, top-level programs have bathed in cash. They’ve erected lavish facilities, signed coaches to multimillion-dollar contracts and massively increased athletic staff sizes. Revenues have never been greater, giving is at an all-time high and, while attendance has shown a steady decline, premium seating and TV money are taking off. But the gravy train has hit a snag. If it leads to a major downturn in the college football economy, then what? “We’re all effed,” says one Power 5 athletic director who wished to remain anonymous. “There’s no other way to look at this, is there?”
A total or partial loss of the sport could send some athletic departments so deep into the red that one administrator predicted even Power 5 football programs shuttering.
Well, that ain’t happening, at least not without a struggle. The question is what kind of consensus can the folks running the sport come to as to when they can turn the lights back on. Coming to a consensus isn’t as easy as you might think, either, even with all the financial motivation in the world.
First of all, the coronavirus isn’t affecting the country on a consistent level.
Ross Bjork, A&M’s athletic director, says the start of football comes down to the government. Most states are currently under a stay-at-home order, restricting large gatherings. These orders are independent of one another and are expected to eventually be lifted at different times. Infections and deaths vary widely from state to state. For instance, the city of New Orleans alone has 10 times the number of cases as all of Nebraska. “What if Texas is farther along than Colorado and Colorado says, ‘We can’t play yet,’ but Texas is in good shape?” Bjork says. “We play Fresno in a non-conference game. What about California?”
You can add the schools themselves to that uncertainty. Can you bring college athletes back to campus before campus is generally open to college students? That’s going to be answered on a state-by-state basis, too.
On top of that comes the health considerations of fans. Even if an athletic department, after sufficient consultation with health experts, sincerely believes it can put an effective protocol into play for its coaches and players, how can it possibly do the same for seventy to a hundred thousand fans in the stands on game day? Without a vaccine, that seems highly unlikely.
Add it all up and you get — at least I get — to one conclusion: the season won’t start on time, but it will start eventually. Then the question becomes what sort of season will the conferences shape. We’re already starting to hear whispers on that front. Virginia Tech’s AD proclaims himself willing to move the entire football calendar to get a whole season in. The Texas A&M system chancellor, John Sharp, says the SEC and NCAA have concluded they can start a football season as late as October with a 13-game schedule.
That strikes me as really pushing it. For one thing, schools would be asking college athletes to play twelve games without a bye week in order to fit everything in by year’s end, and that would come on top of what would be a truncated offseason to prepare physically. That’s a tall order. Beyond that, they would be putting a wrecking ball to a major chunk of the bowl season, or, at a minimum, significantly reducing time for bowl prep, which again puts a physical strain on players.
Now again, I know the money is going to be the driving concern here, so the balancing act ultimately is how far schools feel they can go cutting corners on players’ health to preserve their revenue streams. My bet is that public perception and potential liability are going to serve as governors on the dollar chase and that we aren’t going to see a 13-game schedule if football doesn’t start until October.
If that’s where we find ourselves, my guess is that the schools and conferences crunch the numbers to find the regular season schedule that generates the most money in a compacted setting. It’s likely that’s nine games, which would allow some conferences to play a complete conference schedule while allowing those with eight game schedules to add an additional game — say, that neutral site meeting with the big paycheck. (By the way, good luck navigating through that, Notre Dame.)
The wrinkle they’ll throw in to make up for lost funds (and this is pure, idle speculation on my part) is that they’ll decide on a (they’ll claim) one-time only eight-game college football playoff, citing the smaller sample size as an excuse to enlarge the field. You heard it here first. That’s an instant money maker and with the bowls already being disrupted, not as hard a call to make as it would be in more ordinary times.
By the way, read the rest of that SI.com piece when you get the chance. There’s a lot of consideration about where this year’s math may take college sports after things settle back down. Radical circumstances often lead to radical change.