Gene Frenette of the Florida Times-Union explains in his article that as COVID-19 number rise, especially in the South, college football’s season is in jeopardy.
Greg McGarity, the Georgia athletic director, was overjoyed to travel to Birmingham for a meeting with his SEC colleagues.
“It was so refreshing, that human interaction had been missed,” McGarity said in a Wednesday interview. “You go into the office and you’re the only one on the floor. It’s so lonely.
“We all crave being able to be around friends and co-workers. Zoom calls are so impersonal. The toughest thing for everyone is the lack of personal interaction.”
With the help of masks and social distancing, this meeting was possible. But the same may not be said for college football games. While FCS leagues have canceled their seasons already, the Power 5 conferences are worried about their future.
“A month ago, I would have said nine [on a scale of 1-10],” McGarity said about playing football. “Now, I’ll say a lucky seven.”
The Challenge of Staying Safe
Besides the huge issue of positive cases rising, there’s also the unknown of the student body joining the training athletes on campus.
“That’s the $64 million question,” said Dr. Rand McClain, chief medical officer at LCR Health in Los Angeles and a regenerative medicine specialist who treats professional athletes. “These aren’t pro players. They’re still teenagers or not far from being teenagers. They’re not known for self-restraint at this age.
“Wearing the mask, social distancing and banning fraternity parties, that’s the rub. Are these players going to do that? What if a third-string player says, ‘I don’t care, I’m not playing. I’m going to the fraternity party.’”
Coaches and athletic directors are considering all of the possible dangers and safety risks. McGarity shares that they’ve been working on the what-ifs.
Mark Emmert, the NCAA president is having his own doubts, saying: “Sadly, the data point in the wrong direction. If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on this pandemic.”
The NFL is having a hard enough time, and they have way fewer people making decisions. The Pac-12 and Big Ten have lessened their schedule to nine games. Two Power 5 leagues have followed suit with conference-only games. The SEC, ACC, and Big 12 have not definitively decided how they are going to proceed.
COVID-19 Cases Are Spiking
College football gatekeepers are nervous for good reason as SEC and ACC states have seen spikes in positive cases. With preseason practices less than three weeks away, it’s cause for worry.
Leading the pack with spikes in the first two weeks of July are Georgia (74 percent), Florida (65 percent), Alabama (59 percent), Texas (65 percent), and Tennessee (96 percent). Following behind at lower but not great numbers are Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, Kentucky, and South Carolina.
“What’s important to know is not so much what the state numbers look like, but the cities in where the schools are,” said Florida State AD David Coburn. “The problem is they’ll look different in all college towns once the students arrive.
“We’ll make a decision [on the football season] based on the information we have, stay nimble and see how it develops. The virus is going to drive this decision.”
Greg Sankey, the SEC commissioner will wait until late July to decide. It’s likely that the ACC and Big 12 will do the same. This decision may be to have conference-only games, though there has been some thought on keeping huge interstate rivalry games like Florida-FSU, Georgia-Georgia Tech, South Carolina-Clemson, and Kentucky-Louisville.
Safety Issues On Campus
So far there have been protocols put into place for college athletes. Extra safety measures have been taken to stay healthy. But what happens to these measures once the whole student body returns to campus?
“I’m not necessarily alarmed yet, but it’s amazing the amount of cases that have gone up lately,” said McClain. “Is it because of increased testing, the spread of the virus or both?
“I don’t mean to downplay the disease because we don’t know as much about it as we’d like. But if you had to choose to give it to one group, [college-age people] is the group because of their recovery ability. Just because these states have growing numbers, it doesn’t mean if you follow the protocols that you’re the one who’s going to get it.”
Take a look at Andrew Whitworth, a Los Angeles Rams offensive lineman. A family member went to lunch with one other person, then spread COVID-19 to all of his family, including his inlaws. One lunch amounted to eight positive cases, one with a hospital stay.
How does this scenario play out on a college football team? Does it turn into 15 or 20 positive cases? What happens to the team when those players are quarantined for 14 days? Those players may not have lasting damage from the virus and eventually return to play, but the competition will certainly be impacted.
A Different Fan Experience
If the previous scenario were to happen, it’s not impossible that a shutdown would be necessary.
“It would be very hard to start a season, stop it, then start it back up,” McGarity said.
If crowds exist during the games at all, it will not be at full capacity. Some models being considered by the SEC and ACC are 50% capacity, 25% capacity, and no fans. This, along with the potential of star players being quarantined in their dorms, makes for a very different season. No matter what, administrators at every Power 5 school believe they will lose millions of dollars.
Even with money at stake, McGarity insists the SEC won’t let that be the decision-maker.
“Number one is health and safety, 1A is revenue generation, and those two will never be interchangeable,” said McGarity. “You can’t make decisions based on revenues and drop the medical down. That’s why everyone is working so hard on [COVID-19] testing, social distancing and masks.”
Coburn hopes that FSU can play the ACC schedule. With their large amount of debt, playing those games would minimize the damage.
“Whether that returns us to sound financial footing, probably not,” said Coburn. “But it’ll make it more reasonable to deal with.
“People don’t realize how many jobs this [football] thing drives. If football goes away, it’s turn-in-the-keys time. Virtually all sports would go away. I don’t think the [athletic] enterprise is sustainable without football.”
Want the 2020 season to happen? Then McGarity has one last request: “Three words: wear a mask. If we all did that one thing, it gives us a better chance to move forward [with football]. If not, we’ll continue to see the numbers go the wrong way.”
While it’s upsetting to think about college football being canceled this season, it’s a possibility we must accept.