Return of college athletics off to shaky start

Photo: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer

The teleconference between Vice President Mike Pence and the commissioners of various sports leagues and conferences on Thursday was the first step toward returning athletic competition among teams, but from the outside looking in, it was a shaky start.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s phase structure of how states will return to business, including gatherings such as sports events also announced by President Trump on Thursday, seems very problematic for NCAA institutions, at least in the short term.

That short term includes the college football season which is scheduled to kick off Labor Day weekend for most teams.

I won’t go into the ins and outs of the three phases or the gating criteria that allows a state to enter into Phase 1. Others can explain it much better and more succinctly than I.

However in reading over the phases at, each one contains guidelines on social distancing and restrictions concerning large gatherings, which not only would inhibit full stadiums but also full classrooms on college campuses.

That’s problematic for the return of college football, according to a report by Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports. Dodd reported Thursday that Power 5 and Group of 5 conference commissioners along with Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick stood in unison in saying that games won’t be played on campuses if students aren’t attending classes on campus.

As you no doubt know, universities and colleges around the nation went to a virtual-learning setting in March because of the virus.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby was quoted by the Associated Press:

“Our players are students. If we’re not in college, we’re not having contests. Our message was, we need to get universities and colleges back open, that we were education-based programs, and we weren’t going to have sports until we had something closer to normal college going on.”

The big question is how quickly and how uniformly can that be achieved?

Schools will not be opened until a state moves into Phase 2, and it wouldn’t be until Phase 3 before even a limited number of fans could attend an athletic event.

Some states have been hit hard by Covid-19, while others have not had it as rough. The phased approach of returning to business as usual means some states will be up and running more quickly than others.

The way college football teams schedule with games played between regional and national opponents, the bulk of the nation would have to be in Phase 3 before games could be reasonably played, according to Bowlsby’s statement.

Right now, it seems a bit dubious to me that the bulk of the U.S. will be in Phase 3 by August, which is when most fall semesters begin and would be the minimum time needed for preseason training of athletes for a season that begins in September.

Some athletic directors, including Arkansas’ Hunter Yurachek, made statements to the effect that they can’t see asking players to play if it remains unsafe for fans to attend the games. So, playing games produced solely for television isn’t really of interest to them.

It’s early still, and those attitudes may or may not change. As a fan, I would watch fanless athletics on television if it is the only option, but I certainly understand Yurachek’s sentiments from a player-health standpoint and a business one, too.

There is enough risk involved in football as it is normally played to give an AD sleepless nights on occasions without the added risk players and staff being infected by a virus that can be debilitating and deadly.

I recently texted with a friend from New Jersey who had Covid-19. He called it the worst 12 days of his life. Nearly a month after getting sick, he’s still weak, sluggish and suffering from a hacking cough. His case wasn’t mild, but it wasn’t considered severe, either. He rode it out at home. This man is a borderline health nut who regularly lifts weights and installs windows for a living.

How would you feel if you were complicit in someone catching an illness like that?

Even if some players caught it and got by with just a few sniffles and body aches because of their strong immune systems, how about if an older staff member caught it and didn’t survive?

Or if it was passed among fans who traveled to a road game at South Bend, Ind.?

I totally understand the worries of the commissioners and ADs, and that’s not even bringing liability in as a component.

Money is also an issue. Fanless football would allow conferences to get their sweet, sweet TV payoff, but to fund sports programs that operate at a loss, athletic programs not only need the TV money, but also ticket, gear and concessions sales.

Now, maybe the United States does kick this virus quickly and the bulk of the nation is out of Phase 3 by July.

Arkansas head football coach Sam Pittman did mention that there are plans for University of Arkansas dorms to open June 29 when he was interviewed on “The Paul Finebaum Show” earlier this week. That indicates the UA is at least making plans for students to attend classes for the second summer session, which usually begins the first week in July.

Again, it is very early in the process of the return of college athletics. Attitudes, feelings, opinions, and circumstances are going to change as we move through the spring and summer. We’ll just have to see how things develop.

Hopefully, the mitigations we’ve all endured for the last month will make it a fairly smooth transition through the CDC’s three phases, and universities will once again open and there will be college football and other sports this fall.

Hope is about the only thing we have at this moment.