Of all the people within college football, Chip Kelly provided a font of wisdom on Thursday.
“The governors of the states and mayors are going to be the ones who tell you whether we can (come back),” the UCLA coach told reporters Thursday. “Because the NCAA can say, ‘Hey, you guys are all going back,’ and if (California) Governor (Gavin) Newsom says, ‘We’re not going back,’ then we’re not going back.”
Through the muck of inarguable fact, that underscores the only hard conclusion anyone can have right now regarding college football’s eventual return and the ever-present possibility of its delay: Playing games in September is going to be an immense challenge. And anyone trying to speak authoritatively on the subject is either lying or delusional.
This would include Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, who said this week that he aims to have football employees come back by May 1, with players following shortly.
“They are 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22 years old and they are healthy and they have the ability to fight this virus off,” Gundy said. “If that is true, then we sequester them, and we continue because we need to run money through the state of Oklahoma.”
Setting aside the obvious stupidity and tone-deafness of that suggestion (which was quickly scuttled by the Big 12), it gives a window into why college football can’t take the same route professional leagues have reportedly looked into: bring players and staff back under quarantine from the general public, put them all in the same place and have them play games on practice fields or in empty stadiums.
As the people who run college sports are quick to remind us, athletes are students. This, we’re told, is why they can’t be paid in accordance with the millions of dollars they bring in to universities. And this is why they can’t be treated any different in the face of a global pandemic.
If it’s not safe for thousands of students to return to campus in the fall, then unpaid athletes certainly can’t be forced to come back and play. So rule that option out.
For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that by the fall, COVID-19 is under enough control that classes can happen in-person. When it comes to football at the University of Michigan, you then run into a refrain that gets repeated when you ask around about the subject: Are you going to feel safe going to a stadium with 100,000 people in September?
OK, well, let’s say you play it without fans. Are people still tailgating? Is that considered dangerous? What about people watching at bars and restaurants, which would surely grow in number if nobody can attend games in person?
It should be pointed out that these concerns are fairly deep in the weeds. Logistically, they fall behind questions like, what happens if one state gives the OK and another doesn’t? Or, what if traveling and staying in hotels every other weekend still constitutes risk? Let alone, could the system handle a player or coach getting coronavirus without shutting down entirely?
And that’s without mentioning the obvious: If people are still dying in large numbers, it’s not appropriate to have a large sporting event where anyone might be put at risk. If playing requires testing everyone on the field, and such testing takes resources away from hospitals that need it, forget about it.
The financial incentive to play college football, even with no fans, with a delayed season or both, is massive. Michigan, along with every other FBS athletic department, makes most of its money from the sport. Without it, non-revenue sports will be drastically affected. Jobs will be lost. So will scholarships. College careers that people worked their whole lives for, ruined.
ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Thursday that there is a “strong conviction” among people in college football to play this year, in some way, shape or form. That’s much of the motivation as to why.
But Schefter tweeted that at 4:10. At 4:15, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said, “I think everybody needs to think seriously about canceling large summer events. From my perspective today, I don’t see how we’re going to have large gatherings of people, again, until we have a vaccine, which is months and months away.” At 4:25, Los Angeles public county health director Barbara Ferrer said, “We’re going to come out at the other end in a matter of weeks,” but that of course comes with the caveat that Newsom, the governor in her state, shot down the idea of sports returning anytime soon just a few days ago.
This decision is not just going to be made by people in college football.
This is to make two points. First, there is a myriad of opinions and information, and it’s going too fast for anyone to keep up. Making a coherent prediction out of that is impossible, but on aggregate, it doesn’t look good. Second, having college sports requires everyone — the federal government, 50 state governments, localities, school administrators, coaches, athletes themselves — to be on the same page.
Does that seem likely to you right now?
Sears can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @ethan_sears.