When it comes to college athletics, specifically college football, the people who run the show are typically awarded a luxury of tone deafness that makes outsiders question the persona of virtue, heroism, leadership, and educational excellence that college sports has created for itself.
Our glorious sport lives in constant conflict between its alleged educational ideals, rapid commercialization, and the steep bell curve necessary to succeed at a high level. When the public demands that players be compensated in some fashion, the institution is slow and stubborn to react. When the public demands that coaches be punished for allowing sexual deviants to run rampant in their program, the administrators double down to protect their own until this no longer becomes feasible from a legal perspective.
However, with COVID-19 bringing the least accountable elements of our society to their knees, we see that college sports has no choice but to pay attention and react with common sense.
We saw how quickly conference tournaments went from being in full swing on a Wednesday night to all of college sports being cancelled in a span of 16 hours. Granted, the NBA’s swift action had a lot to do with this, but college athletics acted quickly.
This now brings us to the largest cash cow of the college sports industrial complex: College Football.
COVID-19 and the 2020 College Football Season
As COVID-19 continues to rip through the United States, it’s time we tackled the dreaded question on the back of every college football fan’s mind: Will we have a football season in 2020?
And if we do have a season, what will the season look like?
Assumption, unknowns, and necessities
Before I even attempt to tackle these multi-faceted questions, let’s lay down a few unknowns, assumptions, and necessities of the current situation:
Unknown: We have no idea when life will go back to normal.
Assumption: College football is a mass gathering. It’s not just fans in stadiums, but football practices that require nearly 150 individuals to be present in one place could also be considered a mass gathering.
Unknown. We have no idea when mass gatherings like concerts, sporting events, conferences, and even football practice will be allowed again.
Necessity: We need college campuses to allow students to come back before teams can practice.
Unknown: We have no idea when college campuses will allow students back on campus.
Assumption: There will be a groundswell of support and political pressure to play at least some part of the college football season.
Assumption and unknown: Our country has a vast digital infrastructure that allows it to function, at least on some level, while we are socially distanced, but we still have plenty of physical limitations. To what extent can we get around our physical limitations?
Assumption and unknown: Everyday, we learn more about COVID-19, but we still don’t the trajectory of the disease, how the U.S. healthcare system will handle the disease, and how our economy will ultimately react to COVID-19’s disruptive elements.
Assumption: No one is going to play with fire by prematurely opening up their places of work or allowing mass gatherings to take place.
Necessity: We need immunization and or treatment drugs to be widely available to have mass gatherings. This means that even hosting football practice will be a challenge absent immunization or treatment drugs.
As you can see, the unknowns are vast, the assumptions are few and far between, and the necessity appears to be several months away at the earliest.
Therefore, with do little known about what the next 3 to 12 months holds — and so little room for error — to make football happen during the 2020 season, college administrators must think outside the box in a way they’ve never had to think outside the box before.
Here are their options.
Option 1: Cancel the Season
This is the easiest option on the table but it will not happen without a fight. ESPN College Football analyst Kirk Herbstreit recently discussed this option on the air.
“I’ll be shocked if we have NFL football this fall, if we have college football. I’ll be so surprised if that happens,” Herbstreit said. ”Just because from what I understand, people that I listen to, you’re 12 to 18 months from a [coronavirus] vaccine. I don’t know how you let these guys go into locker rooms and let stadiums be filled up and how you can play ball. I just don’t know how you can do it with the optics of it.” Kirk said if he was the NFL commish or in charge of the NCAA, he would shut it down ASAP — “Next thing you know you got a locker room full of guys that are sick. And that’s on your watch?
While there were some, like Kansas State Athletic Director Gene Taylor, who lambasted Herbstreit for taking such an alarmist position, this take is more realistic than it is alarmist.
Yes, the season is 22 weeks away but, at the present moment, there is no light at the end of this COVID-19 tunnel. In addition, Herbstreit inferred one of the realities about how COVID-19 puts the season in danger: Any player or coach who, after practice begins or the season begins, tests positive inside a locker room could set off a rapid avalanche that will lead to cancelation of the season.
Reports also vary as to how long we will be under social distancing restrictions. This affects the ability of college campuses to open again which affects the ability to host a football practice which affects the ability to have game competition. This is before we even consider whether fans can be in attendance. As stated above, the digital infrastructure allows us to televise games to mass audiences. So, games can go on with no fans. However, we are still nowhere near the point where we can allow hundreds of people to be gathered in one place.
Then there are also questions on how long coaches need to prepare their teams for the physical toll of not just the season, but practice. Several coaches speculate that their teams would need to reconvene for 4 to 6 weeks for conditioning before they even begin to practice. Then they have to practice for another 4 weeks before the season begins. What this means is that you might need college campuses to open about 8 to 10 weeks before the season begins.
Another added complication is the expected second wave of the virus that could strike in the fall. Keep in mind that the largest unknown variable on whether a season happens is the availability of vaccines and treatment drugs.
So, as hard as it is for most of us to come to terms with a canceled season, we should come to terms with the fact that this is the most likely outcome at the present moment, given the lack of information we have at our disposal.
We can all rest assured, however, that several college administrators will explore whatever contingencies are possible to play the season.
Option 2: Play in the Summer
Playing a season in the summer was bandied about by Michael Smith at Sports Business Journal.
Amid a growing concern that the college football season could be pushed back, or even canceled, an alternative could come into play — moving the season up to July, August and September, writes SBJ’s Michael Smith. Every other scenario has the season starting later in the fall, at a time when the coronavirus could be returning for another round of infections as the cool weather returns and a vaccine most likely unavailable until 2021. But staging an abbreviated college football season in the summer presents an opportunity to play games when the warm weather could help prevent the spread of the virus.This summer season would be played in July, August, and September.
How Realistic is this option?
This summer season could be played in empty stadiums or it could be played with spectators in attendance. In order for this to happen, you would need college administrators to feel feel comfortable opening their campuses by mid-May to June so the players can get the necessary practice time. This, unfortunately, does not seem possible at the moment.
But even if it is, we have to hope no one any team tests positive for COVID-19 at any point from when the season starts until the season ends. For this reason, this scenario seems highly unlikely.
Option 3: Play in the Fall
In order to starts the season on time, you have to hope college campuses are open by July 1. This is not outside the realm of possibility. Then you have to figure out where we are in terms of vaccines — to prevent spread — and where we are in terms of drugs to treat COVID-19. If society feels more comfortable, then things will open up.
However, if we are still nowhere near a vaccine or if the treatments drugs are still not available, then a single case anywhere on any college campus — much less a team — will force the closure of college campuses, which could bring the season to a halt.
The same goes if they attempt to start a season in mid-October where they only play conference games. Then campuses must be open by mid-August to Sept. 1 and then college administrators must assess where we are with vaccines and treatment.
Again, if no vaccines or treatment drugs are widely available, then a single case of COVID-19 will end the season. A fall season is also at the mercy of a second wave hitting, which again, is dependent on available vaccines or viable treatment options.
How Realistic is this option?
Fall is much more plausible than playing in the Summer. But fitting a season between unpredictable waves of COVID-19 is difficult to plan for.
Option 4. Play the season in the Winter and Spring of 2021
At this point, if the 2020 season gets pushed to early 2021, then college administrators must take the NFL Draft, the NCAA Tournament, and the Fall 2021 season into account.
Let’s play this scenario out:
A second wave does hit in the fall of 2020. Luckily, college administrators see this coming and in the summer of 2020, they proactively move the entire season to mid-February 2021, with practices set to begin in early January 2021. At this point, vaccines are starting to roll out while drugs to treat the virus are approved and have been distributed. College administrators have had time to assess the situation and put in necessary protocols for testing for COVID-19 on their college campuses, but with vaccines and treatment drug available, the fear of the virus is significantly lower than it is right now.
Let’s say, this season is to begin on Feb. 13, 2021. We have 12 games in 13 weeks. Rivalry weekend is set for May 8, 2021. Conference championships are set for May 15, 2021. The College Football Playoff is set for May 22, 2021 with the National Championship set for Memorial Day Weekend.
A spring season also gives us a great chance of having fans in attendance at games.
This is what the modified Illinois Football schedule would look like in this scenario:
The NFL could meet a spring college football season with passive resistance in the form of an unwillingness to adjust their scouting period and draft. Still, we have no idea what the NFL is going to do with its season. There are reports that the NFL could have the season in the fall in a dedicated sequestered facility.
Theoretically, it’s possible that the NFL will build in the middle of nowhere a corona-free campus where all players, coaches, trainers, doctors, broadcasters, officials, etc. would spend the entire season sequestered from the rest of the world, with games played on a series of fields from which the games would be televised, with no one else present. (I haven’t heard that this is a possibility, but it’s one that the league definitely should be considering.)
If the NFL can actually pull this off, then they will be able to stay on schedule, but college football will be at the NFL’s mercy with the Draft.
College Basketball and the NCAA Tournament could create another logistical issue for a spring college football season. The 2021 NCAA Tournament is set to begin March 16 and conclude on April 5. We could have weeks 6, 7, 8, and 9 of this hypothetical spring football season in direct competition with the NCAA Tournament.
Playing two college football seasons in the span of 10-12 months
This is by far the greatest concern with a spring season. You have to squeeze two football seasons into a 10 to 12 month window. As we know, football is grueling and physical, and the rate of injury will go up trying to fit so many games into a tight window.
You see these injury issues in soccer in years where international tournaments take up players summers on top of their grueling August to May Club, Domestic Cup, and Champions League duties. You also see this concern in professional basketball when the Olympics come around.
Now, take this and apply to a sport in football that’s much more violent and physically grueling.
How Realistic is this option?
From a COVID-19 perspective, a spring season seems like the best alternative. But even this will be met with resistance.
Given the tremendous issues COVID-19 presents, the NFL Draft and a conflict with NCAA Tournament should likely be brushed aside.
The issues of player safety with players playing 20-24 games in a 10-12 months span, however, will not be taken lightly.
As you can see, COVID-19 presents enormous challenges for everyone associated with college sports. Getting a football season in will require everyone who plans the sport to think outside their usually box of when the season can take place, and it will require a level of fluidity that we have never seen from the sport: Fans might not be allowed in stadiums; the season might have to move to an orthodox point in the calendar; recruiting, training, and practice might also have to see significant changes.
There is no easy fix here because, for once, college football can’t hide and look away.