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College Football 2020: What If? And at What Cost?

by on June 25, 2020 10:14 AM

Nationwide, college football student-athletes have returned to campuses to train for the expected fall season. There is an air of the season’s inevitability, but as with everything in the COVID-19 age the only certainty is ongoing uncertainty.

Ideally a full football season will return this fall. Life is no longer so simple.

We must ask ourselves: what costs are we willing to bear to get college football back this fall? Or more to the point what costs are we willing to ask players and coaches to bear to get college football back this fall?

While we expect players and coaches to work do their part, some fans won’t make even minor sacrifices like wearing masks or social distancing to get football back. Recommendations by medical experts have been politicized into partisan issues.

Not even a Nick Saban PSA asking people to wear a mask so we can play football in the fall rallied people in SEC country. But then again, maybe some fans of other teams would rather take the season off than face Alabama.

But just as President Trump has left the states to figure things out individually, NCAA President Mark Emmert has largely left football decisions up to conferences and schools.

In both cases we’ve been left with an uneven response to COVID-19. As decision time nears one way or another a minefield of “what-ifs” is in the path to the season.

Those “what-ifs” challenge us to examine the values of higher education and college football.

Comparisons to pro football are not apropos here. In the NFL unionized players are grown men paid to play the game. In college football neither the players nor the coaches have collective representation to look out for their welfare.

College players and coaches must trust university administrators and conference commissioners who draw large salaries from television rights fees and ticket revenues. There is certainly a potential conflict of interest.

So at what point do we find the balance between the welfare of coaches and players and the financial cost? No one has articulated that clearly yet.

So let’s assume that football starts on time. One of the arguments for playing is that the college-aged population is at a low risk for mortality. Mortality cannot be the only bar we need to clear. 

So what if coaches start being hospitalized?

Maybe players are low-risk, but many coaches because of age, or other fairly common health issues are at risk. During the season stress levels skyrocket and both sleep and eating patterns suffer making them susceptible. Put them around players every day and there is a real chance they contract the virus. After all you cannot practice by Zoom, and there are in-person meetings every day. A game day sideline is not a place where masks or social distancing work either.

So what if your school has a coach, or coaches who end up in the hospital…or worse? It can happen. Is the life of a coach worth it?

What if schools only test players or coaches who are symptomatic?

In football the idea is that you play and coach through pain and even sickness. With that mindset, a player who believes that COVID-19 is not lethal and only feels slightly off might keep their mouth shut. Why risk a positive test and be forced to sit out for two weeks while the season rolls on without you? 

What if testing turns up multiple cases the week of a big game?

At best the game will be played without players and coaches who test positive. It is probably more likely that the game will be canceled. But either way there may be chaotic change as the season unfolds. 

What if the games have to be played without fans or with limited numbers of fans?

If we have to take those kinds of precautions for fans, we should seriously consider what we are asking of our players and coaches. Most of them want to play and coach and get the season going, but it is not without risk.

We could go on and on asking “what if?” but for college football the clock is ticking down in the fourth quarter.

Soon these leaders must consider the mission of their universities. Then they must weigh the costs in health and risk of playing this season against the potential revenue loss. Neither decision is clear-cut.

But as they sift through possible scenarios, the decision makers must take all of the “what-ifs” into consideration. On fall Saturdays from their enclosed suites high above the action, they’ll be looking down as others live with the consequences.

To allow economics alone to tip the scale would relegate the players and coaches to the status of ancient Roman gladiators risking themselves for our entertainment and money. And we should certainly hope that society has made more progress than that across the centuries. 

Somewhere there may be a balance and that must be where the fate of the season is decided.


State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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