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Analysis: The college football season is in trouble

UPDATED: Fri., July 10, 2020

Martin Stadium is seen on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, on WSU's campus in Pullman, Wash.   (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Martin Stadium is seen on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, on WSU's campus in Pullman, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Adam Kilgore Washington Post

The college football season, a rite of autumn and revered American institution uninterrupted for 150 years, veered this week toward a grim fate as the novel coronavirus continued to spiral.

When the coronavirus’s spread put virtually all of sports on hold in March, many major college football leaders viewed the prospect of playing, perhaps even in full stadiums, through an optimistic lens. They had time and a financial imperative: The entire collegiate athletic system depends on the revenue generated by the sport’s lucrative television rights deals and ticket sales in enormous on-campus stadiums.

Those hopes, which began to dissipate amid a flurry of positive tests as players returned to campuses for voluntary workouts, might be vanishing after a week of ominous signs and dire indications. On Wednesday, the Ivy League declared it would cancel all sports in the fall, a warning sign that gained resonance Thursday and Friday, when the Big Ten and Pac-12 Conferences announced they will play only conference games in 2020. Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren acknowledged the move may be incremental in the eventual cancellation of the season for the conference of tradition-steeped programs such as Ohio State and Michigan.

“We may not have college sports in the fall,” Warren said Thursday in an interview on the Big Ten Network. “We may not have a college football season in the Big Ten.”

Conference leaders and campus representatives soon will faces the same wrenching considerations as the Big Ten and Pac-12, and many have scheduled meetings to arrive at high-stakes decisions. A season without college football would have grave financial consequences. Athletic departments already have felt the financial squeeze of the coronavirus, evidenced this week by Stanford, one of the nation’s most decorated athletic departments, cutting 11 varsity sports. The loss of football revenue would exacerbate a problem that began with the cancellation of the lucrative NCAA men’s basketball tournament in March.

College football in some ways had apparent advantages in returning to play. Athletes are not unionized and receive no compensation beyond scholarships and a small stipend, which gives administrators and coaches tremendous power. But as the United States could not halt the coronavirus over the late spring and summer and sports leagues attempted to forge a path ahead, big-time college football was uniquely doomed.

Playing the sport demands constant proximity and physical contact. Teams are spliced into campuses struggling to determine a course for fall academics. Programs are strewn from Hawaii to Boston, in sleepy towns and huge cities. Central leadership does not exist.

While administrators cling to hope they can save a teetering season, they are caught in a national crisis over which they have little control. Case counts and positive-test percentage continue to rise across the country, and acutely in states such as Texas, Florida and Arizona.

“College football can’t be isolated from what’s going on as a nation as a whole,” said Johns Hopkins infectious-disease expert Amesh Adalja, a member of the NCAA’s covid-19 advisory panel. “The events of the past several weeks have really made the calculation a lot different than it was a month ago in early June, when we were thinking about what measures to put in place. It just becomes much, much more difficult when you’ve got rising outbreaks in many states.”

The sport’s leaders are scrambling to create contingencies. But Adalja pointed to several factors that make even trying to plan for an altered season dicey. Quarantine measures in various states may restrict travel. In some states, testing capacity has been stretched to the point that turnaround time for prior-to-competition testing would be impractical and the ethical choice of dedicating hundreds of tests to healthy athletes is fraught.

Excising out-of-conference games, Warren said, was an option chosen to salvage any kind of season. By playing only conference games, the Big Ten can fully control its schedule, allowing to postpone games, restrict travel or reschedule matchups with autonomy.

“One of the things that was most important to us was the flexibility of the operations,” Warren said.

The decision compelled the NCAA to offer tepid support through a wan statement that reinforced one of college football’s greatest challenges in a pandemic: No one is really in charge. The NCAA provides guidance, while conference commissioners make decisions, often heavily influenced by power brokers that range from television executives to coaches. The chaotic patchwork of fiefdoms typically adds to the sport’s flavor, but in a pandemic, it makes necessary steps - particularly uniform testing - impossible.

“As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to impact college sports, the NCAA supports its members as they make important decisions based on their specific circumstances and in the best interest of college athletes’ health and well-being,” the NCAA’s statement read.

The elimination of nonconference games may help the Big Ten execute a season simply by shortening it. It could feasibly play its full conference schedule even starting six weeks later, buying the conference a little extra time. But even those most incentivized to play recognize the implications.

“Two months ago I was cautiously optimistic, but I’ve lost that,” Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith said on a conference call with reporters. ” … I am concerned we may not be able to play.”

Other conferences soon could follow the Big Ten’s lead. Multiple reports suggested the Atlantic Coast Conference and Pac-12 likely will cancel out-of-conference games, with the ACC making an exception for Notre Dame, which is independent in football but an ACC member in other sports.

The most wrenching choice may belong to the Southeastern Conference, whose football teams are embedded in culture and vital economic engines for the South. Programs such as Alabama, Georgia and Louisiana State are national powerhouses and local obsessions. The conference has yet to take any steps directed at reducing or canceling the season, but a conference spokesman said conference officials will be meeting with campus leaders “to determine the best path forward related to the SEC fall sports.”

“We recognize the challenges ahead and know the well-being of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and fans must remain at the forefront of those decisions,” the SEC spokesman said.

Those who held out optimism met a reckoning this week. Programs in the Ivy League and Power Five conferences share as much in common as a pop gun and a rocket launcher, but Wednesday’s announcement still reverberated, because the Ivy League had presaged broader decisions before. In March, the Ivy League canceled men’s and women’s basketball tournaments to much criticism. About 48 hours later, the entire NCAA tournament, one of the America’s grandest sporting spectacles, had been called off.

As the Ivy League nixed fall sports, Ohio State and North Carolina shut down voluntary team workouts on campus after a rash of positive coronavirus tests. Those actions raised a gloomy question: If football teams can’t safely make it through informal practices, how can they practice in full?

Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick, one of the sport’s influencers, added to the bleak outlook. He told ESPN the past two weeks have made him pessimistic about starting on time, and it is now “less likely” the sport can launch as usual.

“We have to shift our allocations a little bit - a little more time on planning the alternatives, and a little less time on planning routine go-forward,” Swarbrick said.

Adalja said he could foresee a college football season unfolding in partial form, with some schools sidelined because of their geography. But even that is problematic, Adalja said, because of the high chance at roving outbreaks popping up in new places.

The overall picture pointed to one sobering conclusion. The college football season, one of America’s most popular pursuits, is staring into the abyss. The country had many months to save it, and now time has nearly run out.

In June, as cases came down, Adalja believed college football would be possible. The equation of test, trace and isolate had been established as a successful method to inch back toward normalcy.

“It’s simply impossible, it seems, for certain places to put in place the infrastructure to do that,” Adalja said. “If you want to have some semblance of normalcy, you have to get this right. We have to acknowledge the failure. It’s very baffling to many of us that this continues to happen. You can’t separate sports from the society in which it’s being played in.”

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