With a lot of questions remaining as to how to get student-athletes back on campus safely, Ole Miss and the SEC eye an on-time return for college football.
While the world continues to navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, the sports world is still mostly on hold as it has been since the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder were pulled from the court prior to a regular season basketball game on March 11.
Professional baseball has returned to action without fans in Korea and parts of China, the Professional Bull Riders have resumed its tour with extreme precautions in place and without fans, and the UFC will hold fights on Saturday with similar stipulations, but no one has a definitive answer when the MLB, NBA, NFL or college athletics will be able to return.
This uncertainty has led to varying contingency plans that are being suggested and discussed by league and conference commissioners, athletic directors, state government and national government alike. For professional leagues, player contracts, financial compensation and massive budgets make a return or resumption a fairly reasonable expectation under unique protocol and without fans in attendance.
Things are more complicated with collegiate athletics and it starts with campuses being open. There are differing opinions on various points of the spectrum as to how to proceed.
Brown University’s president wrote this week that re-opening campuses should be a “national priority.” Stanford University’s president has said that he does not expect a decision about how the school will proceed for the fall quarter until sometime in June.
If campuses do open, student-athletes are tied to their academics and have little stability when it comes to secured benefits or contractual obligation. This minimal arrangement raises the very complicated question of how to proceed with fall sports. In particular, how can universities continue safely with playing the athletic department’s largest revenue generator and America’s most popular sport of football.
Most spring practices were cancelled nationwide after classes were moved online and conferences suspended all athletic events. Since then, players have been limited to working out at home with the help of training plans from strength coaches at their respective universities. That being said, with football in particular, off-field conditioning only goes so far. The physicality of the game requires an ‘ease-in’ period to acclimate the body to contact and in-game movement. Allotting time to assess the conditioning of each athlete before he begins hitting is paramount to preventing injury.
In addition, teams need time to work through playbooks, systems, schemes, depth charts and logistics. These two factors require a preseason of a length to be determined.
Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour said in April that after talking with sports science folks, strength and conditioning and the team’s head physician, she would like a 60-day window before the season begins. Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin said he would like his team to have at least two weeks of conditioning before his players even put on pads.
The opinions across the scope of the NCAA differ greatly, however. Fellow Big 10 schools Nebraska, Purdue and Michigan plan to host on-campus classes during the fall semester, which is the first hurdle toward having athletics resume. University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld went one step further said that the school’s student-athletes are planning to resume team activities and practices on June 1, including football.
University of Iowa pres said athletes planning to resume practice, including footballers, June 1. 'We're hopeful that this will be behind us at this point.'— Vanessa Miller (@VanessaMiller12) April 30, 2020
In the SEC, the suspension of all athletic-related activities continues through May 31, but schools have begun to announce plans for the upcoming semester. Missouri was the first university to announce it will host classes as normal in the fall, and other schools will presumably follow suit.
Arkansas athletic director Hunter Yurachek announced a plan similar to Iowas that will open weight and training rooms on June 1 (a day after the SEC plans to lift its suspension) for voluntary workouts and begin football practice on July 15.
Ole Miss athletics director Keith Carter didn’t close the door on the June 1 return that Yurachek hopes for at Arkansas, but said he hopes to bring student-athletes to campus by July 1 and mentioned that coaches need 6-8 weeks to get their athletes ready for competition. He has had conversations with health professionals on a consistent basis and is putting together a plan to get athletes back safely that includes testing.
“It’s going to be an interesting situation because in the SEC, there are 11 states that are represented,” Carter told RebelGrove. “We’re trying to find a uniform way for all these states and institutions to come back and bring these student-athletes back and get them ready for the fall. With each state having a different timeline, finding a uniform way to do that may be difficult, but certainly everyone is on the same page trying to get that done.”
Per sources close to the Cup, there is positive momentum for a plan to get athletes back on campus among SEC schools that includes housing teams and their staffs in on-campus hotels that will be locked down from visitors and media. This might be a wild proposition for those involved, but it could be the only way to guarantee SEC football this fall.
Location roots another issue for resuming college football in-conference and nationwide. Yurachek’s announcement came on the same day that Gov. Asa Hutchinson allowed the return to gyms and fitness centers across Arkansas— but what happens if some states are back to as normal as possible and others are not?
This past week saw some states around the United States begin to reopen, and others are slated to begin the process soon. Most of the states that are loosening restrictions are located in the Southeast, Midwest and Mountain regions, while the nation’s most highly populated cities are still on strict lockdown.
In fact, the entire Southeastern Conference outside of LSU and Kentucky are located in states that are currently reopened or will do so in the next couple of weeks. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey recently joined radio program XL Primetime to discuss the possibility of the SEC continuing on with a season, even if other schools or conferences are unable to do so. He offered a variety of ideas but ultimately left more questions on the table than definitive answers.
Though he may not have laid out a firm plan to do so, Sankey suggested that playing a season when other conferences cannot is a legitimate possibility.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey hopes there will be unity among the FBS conferences to resume football activities, but feels it’s not a necessity to move forward, “If there’s a couple of programs that aren’t able, does that stop everyone? I’m not sure it does.” #CollegeFootball #SEC pic.twitter.com/PncDHjMOdo— Justin Riley (@JustinRiley7) April 30, 2020
Perhaps Sankey is keeping his cards close to his chest by not offering up a complete plan, knowing that a move to proceed with a football season without all 130 FBS programs would be unprecedented. As Sports Illustrated Greg Arias writes, it could “send a significant ripple through the sports landscape,” and might cause tension with the NCAA and other conferences.
As for other conferences, there is a little bit more uncertainty on how to continue uniformly. The Pac 12 might be the most volatile conference, with its members spread across six different states at varying degrees of stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidelines.
Mark Harlan, the athletic director at the University of Utah (a state that has begun the re-opening process) has said he will do as the conference feels best and is open to anything that makes sense to play the season as close to on-time as possible.
“If it’s the other way, we’ll abide by that, too” Harlan said. “But I think right now, what you have to be is open for all possible scenarios and not shutting anything down. I think if you shut down anything at this point, it’s just a mistake in the way you have to plan and prepare.”
On Friday, Kansas State athletic director Gene Taylor outlined seven contingency plans that the Big 12 has considered, including starting the season in March of 2021 or splitting up the season with six games in the fall and six games in the spring. For Big 12 commissioner Boby Bowlsby, the worry is less with early fall, but more with the end of the season and the postseason.
“If the virus comes roaring back in the traditional flu and virus season in November, December, through March, I wonder if we’re going to get basketball seasons in, I wonder if we’re going to get the [College Football Playoff] in, I wonder if we’re going to get the NCAA tournament in,” Bowlsby told ESPN.
When it comes to a definitive answer on when football will return, there isn’t one. Football will not be played until schools open and health experts, governors, university presidents and athletic directors can be confident in its safety. More than likely that includes faster, more widely-available testing and a better understanding of COVID-19’s transmission rate.
Here is a photo of an undetermined Georgia Tech home game during the 1918 college football season. That's when the sport was hit by the Spanish flu and the end of World War I. The photo was taken by a student, Thomas Carter. It was provided by Georgia Tech alumnus Andy McNeal. pic.twitter.com/jgVvgtlUbK— Tony Barnhart (@MrCFB) May 6, 2020
Football won’t return until health experts, governors, university presidents and others in charge deem it safe. That likely means faster and more available testing, a treatment for COVID-19 and potentially even a vaccine. When will that start to happen? It’s unclear at this point, so even though there is positive momentum toward playing a season this year, what that season will look like and who will participate is still very much up in the air.