Empty Promises

As the world continues to reel from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, sports in general and college football specifically are trying to figure out their path to return.

I'm just going to have to make my peace with the fact that this will be outdated nearly as soon as it posts, as the landscape of college sports, specifically college football's 2020 season, evolves rapidly.
To timestamp this: I write in the waning hour of July 9; it will likely post just beyond the midnight threshold. I'm reasonably certain the news cycle has wound down for the day. From there, I've probably got at least eight hours - likely 12, because announcements often come around mid-day, after morning meetings - before the landscape changes once more.

In the past 48 hours alone, we've learned that the Ivy League became the first Division I conference to decide not to compete this fall; Division II's SIAC and CIAA have stated the same, functionally ending all HBCU competition at the D-II level. The Big Ten will play only conference games; the ACC is reportedly considering the same, having already delayed the start of competition for its Olympic sports until at least September 1. Bands in the Big 12 will not travel to road games. Before this, we already learned about the cancellation of several neutral site games, including the Southern Heritage Classic and Black College Football Hall of Fame Classic; the NAIA not starting competition until at least September 12, and the American Athletic Conference not allowing bands on the field at all.

All of these steps are being taken to preserve some semblance of a season as we know it, but are we moving towards a safer product that can resume in the fall, or rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?

College football sits amid a quagmire of sports, culture, education, politics, and the almighty dollar that make a decision to cancel or not particularly complicated. The major professional leagues are all making their plans for a return: NASCAR's back already, racing to empty speedways; MLB will return at the end of the month with a shortened season and regionalized action; MLS has returned to a World Cup style tournament in a quasi-Olympic village in Orlando; the NBA is doing similar when their season returns in three weeks. And save for a remote draft, the NFL, whose start date laid the latest from the initial COVID-19 interruptions has soldiered on towards its September start as though there is no pandemic.

College football is different. The sport has no central leadership structure; even the NCAA barely holds sway at the sports highest level, where the championship is decided by a proprietary invitational playoff. Teams in the FBS play in 41 states, 10 conferences, myriad state university systems, and municipalities ranging from college towns to major metropolitan areas, each of which make decisions that affect the sport, and each of which is making their own decisions for their constituencies about what is in their best interest during this pandemic.

One of the first hurdles: Are students even returning to campus for an in-person fall semester? Most are, in many cases with some modifications including hybrid or online courses and campus social distancing, face covering, and testing or self monitoring protocols. Still, social distancing efforts are for naught with up to 400 in a band room playing wind instruments, or gathered in a locker room before taking the field to engage in a collision sport. There have already been spikes in positive tests among players at both of this past year's championship contenders, LSU and Clemson. 

Social distancing also becomes tricky when it comes to the 100,000+ seat cathedrals at which we worship college football each fall Saturday. There has been talk of diminishing capacity in such a way that allows attendees to social distance, but I think that's the most you can do to limit it. Unlike the professional leagues, where athletes earning into the millions are competing, it takes quite the ethical limbo to tell the student-athletes - a term we love to sling when it's convenient - that they can risk their health without compensation when it's deemed unsafe for their classmates to watch from the stands.

The athletes, meanwhile, are competing in an ecosystem that contains 130 teams at the sports highest level alone. Even if each conference restricts simply to league play, as the Big Ten has, playing puts each player into direct or indirect contact with over 1,000 players per conference, to say nothing of coaches, support staff, and others on campus with whom each of them are in contact. 

The sport is predicated on travel, for both the teams and the fans. The season brings travel into communities like Starkville and State College, Columbia and Corvallis. One of the early illustrations on the virus' spread in the US tracked those who spent Spring Break in Florida and returned to their hometowns afterwards. Consider that same model playing out over a 12 game season from hundreds of campus sites. And limiting or even eliminating in stadium crowds may do little to limit that. Outside of perhaps the NFL and NASCAR - and for the latter of these, much of it occurs within gates that the league controls - college football's tailgate culture is such that even if fans can't get in the stadium, it may take a small army to keep them from showing up for their Saturday parking lot ritual and watching the game from their rig.

But the show must go on - or at least, it will try its damndest. To lose the season would cause grievous, if not catastrophic, financial damage to many institutions' athletic departments. In many cases, college football revenue keeps the lights on for the rest of the athletic department, and in the top programs, much of the university as well, be it through directly generated ticket and TV revenue or the rest of the industrial complex that commands alumni and donor giving, merchandise sales, parking, concessions, and even a sizable boost to the local economy as campuses become one of the largest cities in their respective states for a Saturday afternoon a half dozen or so times a year. College football is also a key driver in the spirit of their community and the psychological sense of belonging. A pandemic rages on, and the return of football would allow to believe in whatever normal is.