College Football This Year?

With all the attention being paid to the NBA’s restart and the delayed opening of the MLB season and the perpetual focus on anything and everything related to the NFL, the situation regarding college football for 2020 has not gotten a lot of attention.  Many Division III schools have canceled their 2020 fall football season; the Ivy League canceled fall sports including football yesterday; major conferences see some teams involved in regulated practices and that those regulated practices are still producing large numbers of confirmed COVID-19 infections; Ohio State has “paused” the “voluntary workouts” for the football team.  These are not good omens.

About a month ago, I was pointed to a report by Bill Rabinowitz in The Columbus Dispatch.  This is a lengthy article that goes over many of the challenges facing college football programs; the headline for the article says it all:

“College football has hurdles to clear in making safe return this fall”

Rabinowitz focuses immediately on the impossibility of any sort of “social distancing” in football; he points out that the only sport with more close contact would be wrestling but in wrestling there are only two participants at a time and the encounter is much shorter than in a football game.  Here is an assessment from the medical director of the Ohio Department of Health quoted in that article:

“You have people lining up at the line of scrimmage and the offense and defense are inches apart.  You have to tackle people. Wearing masks would be difficult.

“And when you look at the respiratory droplet transmission, if you’re out of breath and breathing really hard, you can see that’s going to probably expel more respiratory droplets than others would. If you’re yelling out calls and signals instead of talking, that again is something that can emit some of those.

“So a lot of work would need to be done on this. But we also have a lot of really smart people in Ohio and elsewhere in the country that have a lot of capabilities that can figure things out.”

He forgot to mention “huddles” and “sideline interactions with assistant coaches to adjust strategies” and “the exchanges of viral loads during the flesh piles that happen after tackling”.  Indeed, a lot of work needs to be done – although I do not see a lot of it having been done between the time this article was written in late May and today.  But in addition to the structural issues involved in how the game of football happens on the field and the need for creative means to mitigate some of the more robust viral transmission vectors, there is another issue in play here:

  •  All these mitigation strategies and these creative solutions to problems are going to cost money – – and not just three easy payments of $39.95.

One idea here is to create cohorts within the team.  Groups of players would be put together and they would stay together in something like a “group quarantine” to the greatest extent possible.  Sounds like a good idea and one that might be enforceable to a large extent and then come the details:

“That approach would include expanded testing and contact tracing for players, which involves monitoring everyone with whom they have been in close physical vicinity. They also strongly advocated the concept of cohorting as teams begin to return. That involves separating players into small groups that attempt to be as self-contained as possible. That way, if a player becomes infected, the exposure is limited to only his group.”

Expanded testing and contact tracing for as many as 150 people associated with a college football program who have been “out and about” for months is a daunting task.  Imagine interviewing a single player returning to campus and trying to get from him all his contacts and behaviors for the previous two or three weeks.  Then go and try to confirm those recollections to see if any of those contacts tested positive and when.  Just that first level screening could take several days – – and meanwhile, the player must be put into a cohort without knowing of his previous exposure(s).  The only way to speed that up is to have more tracers and that translates into lots more costs.

Oh, and please do not think that the “expanded testing” stops once the cohorts are formed.  That testing will need to happen throughout the season; players need not be tested daily, but they surely would need to be tested more than weekly.

I will not be surprised to hear that lots of schools – maybe even conferences – decide to forego a 2020 college football season and try to figure out how to squeeze one into the early weeks of 2010 simply based on costs.  The big-time programs – – the ones whose boosters can come up with $10-15M on the spot to buy out a coach who loses a few too many games – – may be able to stay afloat fiscally.  Maybe if they play in the fall of 2020, they will need to concoct schedules where the big-time programs fill out a schedule by playing other big-time programs in other conferences?  Another negative development yesterday came from Stanford – a big-time football school.  Stanford announced it will cut 11 non-revenue sports this year for financial reasons.

Here is the link to the article in The Columbus Dispatch to which I have referred here.  It was published on May 24th and if any of the serious hurdles described there have been resolved to the satisfaction of scientists and medical folks, I do not know what those resolved hurdles might be.

Finally, here is a comment from Scott Ostler in the SF Chronicle:

“The ESPN documentaries on Michael Jordan and Lance Armstrong were interesting. Now how about a documentary or two on people who become superstars without being bullies and jerks? Just to show the kiddies that it can be done that way.”

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………



4 thoughts on “College Football This Year?”

  1. The problems college football is facing are really complex. The in-game issues you listed are really hard to solve (maybe impossible), but they are downstream from many other tough hurdles. All those potential cohort groups are students who need to take classes and go to the library and to labs and be the social creatures all 19-21 year old humans are. If college football is dependent on these athletes isolating themselves from fellow students, then failure is inevitable.

    The Ivy League made the smart call because they do not have the structural need to pour huge amounts of revenue through their football programs. Money is the whip hand driving the SEC, ACC, etc to try so hard to have a football season. Personally, I will miss college football if it doesn’t happen, but it was past time to make changes in how college sports are funded and presented.

    1. Doug:

      Your point about the football players being “student athletes” and needing to go to class and the library and to interact with other students would be all the more difficult if the schools did not have all the students on campus to get their instruction. In the circumstance of “tele-instruction”, the football players would be the only students on campus. That would be an ‘odd look” for a university…

  2. If the P5 conferences all decide to play only conference games, that leaves Notre Dame in an awkward spot. They have six ACC games on their schedule, but are not eligible for the championship. One idea rumored is that the ACC would add four more games to those six, thereby making ND’s schedule look like the other ACC teams. Of course, that begs the question of why doesn’t ND just join the ACC fully and make the break from their independent status. I know the ACC wants ND to join for football, so why not make the 2020 schedule contingent on full ND membership?

    1. Doug:

      The fate of Notre Dame football for the Fall of 2020 is “Problem #4,335” on a list where no one is going to get below “Problem #10”.

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