If this was 10 years ago, I’d be ringing the bell to say full speed ahead into the college football season. That’s how coaches tend to think. Football is an essential service and we are tougher than the rest of society, so let’s go.
But there is a world beyond the lines of the football playing field. And there comes a time when football, too, must fall in line with society’s expectations of what must be done for the greater good.
And if you think anyone has a clear 2020 vision for college football this fall, you’d be wrong. Everyone is facing massive uncertainty.
This column is not advocacy one way or the other, only an example of how tough this will be — and this is just hitting the biggest questions that remain.
The best anyone can do is plan for the fall but be ready to adjust to changing conditions. The looming decisions are the ultimate exercise in “game” management, but are so much bigger than a game.
On Penn State’s Board of Trustees, we’ve seen far more major, university-level risk management and liability discussion these past few months than anyone would want to see in a lifetime. When dealing with people’s lives it is vital to get an honest assessment, and there are no easy answers during this current fog of war.
There are many paths forward; none are yet clear to anyone. The fog continues to blur the sightlines.
The simplest scenario, with “simple” meaning easiest to explain, is that universities cancel football for the fall. That is the scenario that no one wants.
And even it leads to more questions.
What about playing in the spring?
When do you start? February has been a suggested date. Imagining that scenario at Penn State, hopefully the weather cooperates and we don’t have another return of COVID-19.
Barring interruption, in February’s week one Penn State hosts an opponent. If the field at Beaver Stadium gets chewed up, will it be playable a week or two later during a non-growth season for natural grass. Player safety becomes an issue not just from COVID-19 but also the playing field.
A spring season brings other factors into play.
If schools announce the season is postponed, many draft-eligible seniors and high-profile juniors will sign with an agent about seven minutes later and start training for the draft. Your team will look dramatically different and skew much younger, which gets to the next issue.
You’ll be asking younger players to play a spring season and then turn around and play in the fall of 2021. Two seasons in an 11-month period would be great for college football fans, but would tax the players’ health.
Let’s get into the complex fall season scenarios.
If some schools play and others do not, what are the transfer rules? If Penn State doesn’t play yet the SEC season goes on, can Penn State players transfer and play immediately for an SEC school? That alone would seem to suggest that a national decision would have to be part of this process.
In the fall, testing the players and everyone in the program would be vital.
What happens if three Penn State players test positive the Monday after their game at Michigan? These players just spent two plane rides with their teammates and coaches and staff. Do they all (coaches included) get quarantined? Do the players at Michigan also get quarantined? Do both programs shut down for two weeks? Or do you let everyone else on the team keep playing?
Will spectators be allowed in the stadium? If so how many can we allow in and who decides which season ticket holders get to go to which games and where do they sit? If social distancing is still required, can we in good conscience send players out there to play a game that requires a complete lack of social distancing? Remember these are college players, not highly-paid NFL players with a union to protect them.
And what happens if a high-profile player gets sick and suffers long-term damage that threatens or ends their NFL career? There will be a nine-figure lawsuit.
Will fans, knowing that there is still a threat out there, show up for games at all? Would they be required to have temperatures taken, wear masks and stay 2 yards away from each other? And who enforces all of that?
Amid a whole host of still unanswered questions, a number of people in the media and social media are pushing full speed ahead for fall football. That is emotion, and in football and in life emotion can lead to careless decisions.
And, like everything else in society, this debate has become politicized. “Tough-guy” schools will play in the fall while others will sit it out because their leadership is “weak”. There has been an incredible amount of time and energy spent to spin things and pressure decisions one way or the other. These include a whole range of conspiracy theories, too.
In discussions and calls with people here and at other schools, I can assure you that there is no conspiracy one way or the other. Everyone wants to see college football again in the fall, but people in positions of responsibility must proceed protecting the safety and security of all involved, from players to coaches to fans.
As Tom Petty said, “The waiting is the hardest part.”
What we are seeing now is like a highly-anticipated college football game. Social media pundits and prophets are stating what they “know” will happen. Truth is no one knows yet. And this one will come down to the wire, with crucial information driving last minute decisions determining the outcome.