Many expansive beaches are still deemed too dangerous to enjoy. Many businesses remain shuttered. Many hospitals are still short on beds.
On July 2, the United States set a single-day record for new coronavirus cases. On Aug. 29, college football remains set to kick off on campuses.
Even as COVID-19 cases rise in at least 36 states and the prospect of a second wave looms in the fall, the majority of conference commissioners, school presidents, athletic directors and coaches are clinging to a cash-inspired cocktail of hope, denial and desperation in order to produce their regularly scheduled season.
But some acknowledge college football in the fall is filled with unavoidable landmines.
“I don’t even see how it’s real,” one Power Five coach said. “You are going to have 100-plus people in the locker room in close proximity. There is no way around that. If they are saying you can’t do that, I don’t see how we can operate when we are going to be on planes and buses with large groups of people and in hotels with other people. There is no way you are going to isolate 100 players, let alone the staff and coaches, and then say, ‘We’ll get together on Saturday for a game.’
“In college football, they really don’t have a solution yet.”
The consensus among the sport’s decision-makers is a resolution must come within the next three weeks. A lot depends upon school presidents’ decisions to allow students on campus, AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told The Post.
“I don’t see why we wouldn’t play if students are on campus and we can have a controlled environment,” he said.
The environment is different on every campus. The FBS has no uniform COVID-19 testing protocol or frequency. Every program has varying resources for medical staff and supplies. Every state has different health regulations. This past week, a U.S. Senate committee hearing noted almost half of the 130 FBS programs are currently declining to make positive tests public.
The hurdles to an undisturbed season start at the top, where the absence of a national authority figure hamstrings a sport unable to enforce consistent regulations across conferences — such as deciding to suspend the season, the allowance of fans into stadiums, the requirements for a team to forfeit, safety measure for players off the field and whether teams will be permitted to play without other students on campus.
The NCAA, for instance, controls March Madness but not the College Football Playoff, which is effectively run by a board comprised of 11 university presidents and chancellors. The decision of when major Division I football will be played is ultimately up to conferences, school presidents and commissioners.
“It’s very difficult without someone like a commissioner to set ground rules that makes sense,” said Rick Neuheisel — the former head coach at UCLA, Washington and Colorado. “If you were in Vegas and you were handicapping which teams were gonna play, you’d probably have to pay a lot of money to get a small return in the SEC, but you might get a real deal if you were betting on the Pac-12.”
No bet is safe.
Before the start of full-contact practices, the potential return of thousands of other students and group travel, teams such as Kansas State, Boise State, Arizona and Houston have shut down voluntary workouts due to outbreaks. The participants of last season’s national title game (Clemson and LSU) imposed quarantines after announcing each had more than 30 players test positive.
There is no proof they cannot contract the disease again. Even for student-athletes who have just mild symptoms of the virus, there is risk of heart problems like arrhythmia or myocarditis — the inflammation of the heart which can lead to heart failure — studies have shown, according to Dr. William Levine, Columbia University’s football team physician and the chairman of Columbia University Orthopedics.
“It seems to be not the right thing to be doing at a time when we are still fighting the world’s worst pandemic that we’ve seen in our generation,” Levine said. “The problem with COVID-19 that everybody [in the medical world] recognizes is that even now, five months into this whole thing, we have many more unanswered questions than we have answers.”
Players being asked to suit up have scholarships but no power, no monetary incentive, no union. Some have openly questioned why they should be put at a risk, when several professionals are opting out of far more isolated playing environments.
“I understand that people want to see us play this season but in reality, how can a team full of 100+ student athletes fully function during a pandemic,” Illinois linebacker Milo Eifler wrote on Twitter. “My teammates and I want to play. But schools around the country are showing blatant disregard for student athletes.”
Even the South sees its favorite pastime in jeopardy.
The governors of Georgia, Arkansas and South Carolina all recently pleaded with their respective constituents to wear face masks, if they wish to watch football this fall. So did Nick Saban, sharing the message while sporting a mask.
That came before kids near the Alabama campus reportedly attempted to contract the virus at parties to win money. That was before a cluster of local LSU bars were linked to more than 100 infections, including Tigers players. That was before a restaurant half a mile from Michigan State’s Spartan Stadium was connected to at least 152 infections.
“All it takes is a couple of guys going to a bar or a restaurant or a party, catching it and you’re locked down for two weeks,” a longtime Division I coach said. “It’s as fragile as that.”
Some players will be responsible. Some will carry the invincibility 18-22-year-olds always have. To many, the perceived health risk to an age group unlikely to suffer the gravest consequences — even while long-term effects remain unclear — isn’t worth missing whatever is most appealing that night.
“Kids are gonna be kids. They’re gonna figure out a way to break protocol and see their girlfriends, to go to a party, to be young,” said Neuheisel, a SiriusXM host. “They’re going to look for things to do. You have to factor that in.”
The variety of looming issues has increased momentum within the sport to move to a spring schedule. There has been more talk about the possibility in recent weeks, Aresco said, as cases continued rising and confidence waned about holding a fall season.
Moving to the spring increases the likelihood of an effective vaccine or treatment being developed and is more likely to have fans in attendance — while allowing doctors, scientists and humanity additional months to better understand the disease. College football would also be given the chance to watch the mistakes made by professional sports returning first.
“What’s most sensible is the spring,” one Power Five athletic director said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I understand the desire to have it in the fall, and there are challenges if you move all of your fall sports into the spring with all of your spring sports. But the argument here is: We will learn from the NFL experience. To put big-time college football in the spring, in likely an abbreviated season — maybe it’s only a conference format, eight- or nine-game season — we are going to have learned much more about the virus.”
Multiple Division II and III schools have already canceled fall sports. The Ivy League will announce its plans Wednesday, but the expectation, according to sources, is football will be played in the spring with a conference-only schedule.
Still, the preference throughout the FBS is to remain in the fall.
Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour called a spring season a “last resort” because of the close proximity to the 2021 fall schedule. There are no guarantees conditions will improve, and it would likely mean a truncated season, Aresco said. There is also the issue of star players such as Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields sitting out and focusing on the NFL draft. USA Today Sports reported college football officials recently approached the NFL about possibly pushing back the draft but were rebuffed.
“My one great fear is that you play September and then you have a rash of infected people and they call the season off,” former Rutgers athletic director Bob Mulcahy said.
On Aug. 7, teams can begin practicing.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, recently warned up to 100,000 cases per day in the U.S. could arrive by then, nearly doubling the current daily count.
Death is a mathematical probability, among roughly 13,000 FBS players. Schools know some degree of spread is a near-certainty.
“It would only multiply,” said Dr. Henry Raymond, an epidemiologist from the Rutgers School of Public Health. “Is it worth it, is the question athletic directors have to ask themselves.”
It’s worth about $4 billion in losses to the sport, should the season be scrapped, according to ESPN.
Non-revenue sports have already been eliminated by schools. Small programs, reliant on seven-figure guarantee games which help subsidize entire athletic departments, could collapse. Power programs could lose tens of millions of dollars without ticket revenue, TV deals, sponsorships and donations. Local economies could be left in ruins, such as Tuscaloosa, Ala. — where more than 30 construction workers just tested positive at the 101,821-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium, which currently has no plan to reduce capacity or enforce social distancing — which would reportedly lose $200 million without a season.
“We cannot let the tremendous amount of money that’s involved interfere with what’s best for the student-athletes and the people associated with a team,” Mulcahy said. “If I had my druthers, I would say let’s do it in the spring and everybody plans for it. I think that’s a decision that’s going to come down the road sooner rather than later. When you look at the number of players who have contracted it already, it’s really food for thought on where things are going to go.”
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