Will coronavirus continue to hold SEC football hostage?


A fall without college football sounds like the wickedest episode of the “The Twilight Zone” or maybe even one of Dante’s nine circles of Hell.

It just wouldn’t be right, would it?

However, living in the our current coronavirus culture has almost felt like being stuck in one of Rod Serling’s weirdo TV shows, and it’s not satire to say that this pandemic has created a sort of Hell on Earth for those who have suffered worst under it s grip.

A friend of mine from New Jersey, who is in his 50s and is a borderline health nut, grappled with the virus in March, and he called it the worst experience of his life. Thankfully he recovered, but he described trying to breathe felt like he was sucking in little shards of glass every time in inhaled. He said exhaling felt like a gorilla was sitting on his chest. Nearly four months later, his endurance hasn’t fully returned, which is tough for a man who prides himself on his conditioning and works in construction for a living.

I’m sure a lot of us can tell similar stories, and some of us may have suffered through worse.

I’ve done my best to stay out of harm’s way for the sake of my 90-year-old dad whom I’m a caretaker for and for myself. I have underlying conditions that might make getting the virus a death sentence.

I have to admit I feel a bit guilty about desiring college football to return during this pandemic as badly as I do, but I do want the games to return if it is safely possible. Is that selfish? I guess it is, but it’s the truth.

What reduces my guilt for wanting to see the Hogs play this year is the fact that the virus has not been as hard on young, healthy people.

Young healthy adults are susceptible to infection by the virus and can pass it to other like everyone else, but for the most part, they don’t seem to suffer as much from it. Reports say the effects are more like catching a cold for young health adults, who have strong immune systems. If this were not the case, I don’t think there would be any consideration for playing games this fall on any level.

Also, the bulk of college football players want the opportunity to play if possible, and the SEC announced on July 17, that if a student-athlete wants to opt out of playing this season for health and safety concerns, he or she can do so and their scholarship will still be honored this year. No one will be forced to play, and there won’t be a penalty if a player decides not to.

Perhaps the biggest health concern going forward for college football is if it’s wise to play and to have fans in the stands while infections and hospitalizations continue to surge. Would an outbreak arising from a large gathering like a football game put undue stress on local healthcare systems?

What has to be remembered is that Razorback football has a tremendous positive impact on Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas. It literally pumps millions of dollars into our economy each year.

Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek stated in his last teleconference with the media that the program’s salaries amount to $41 million dollars a year. Yes, a nice chunk of that goes to a handful of highly paid employees, but the bulk of it goes to hundreds of staff members drawing what we would consider regular paychecks. A lot of that pay is then spent or invested here in Fayetteville and Northwest Arkansas.

While this will be a different season if it is played with fewer fans in the stands to maintain social distancing standards, those who are able to attend will spend money during a game weekend.

A 2012 report by the Center of Business and Economic Research of the Sam M. Walton College of Business estimated visitors spend $30 million a year while attending Razorback games of all sorts, and that the total economic impact of the Razorback program on the statewide economy is in excess of $124 million.

According to the report, a single Razorback football game pumps about $5 million dollars into the Fayetteville economy. Those expenditures create jobs and a wealth of other opportunities for so many in the community, even those who don’t have an abiding interest in college athletics.

All of that and myriad of other concerns are what faces the presidents and chancellors of the SEC universities as they prepare to meet with SEC commissioner Greg Sankey on Thursday.

It’s uncertain exactly what will and won’t be decided in the meeting. I personally hope whatever is announced following the meeting is just the first in a series of announcements made over the next month.

I’m afraid a definitive announcement would mean a decision not to play at all. Considering the economic impact of that across the SEC, I don’t think anyone involved is ready to punt just yet, even if it just until next spring.

I’d personally like to see the SEC try to maintain its current 12-game schedule, knowing that there is the possibility for some games falling by the wayside for health and safety concerns as the season goes along.

I like the aggressive stance the Big 12 is taking by actually starting its season a week earlier to create more space in the schedule. The SEC may well push its season back, as some are suggesting, but that only really makes sense if the infection rate starts trending down.

If the infection rate continues as it is going, the decision is either to not play or play. If the decision is to play regardless of the current rate of infection, there is no reason to delay the season’s start because there is no way of knowing if infections will be up or down by Sept. 5.

There is a line of thinking the SEC should follow suit with the Big 10 and Pac 12 and play just conference games. The idea is that health and safety standards can be better controlled within a conference. The fear is that some programs might cut corners on testing because of money or that other conferences might be more lax than the SEC.

However, there has been talk of the SEC playing its regular conference schedule plus one nonconference game. That would be fine, but to me if you’re going to play one nonconference game, it defeats the reasoning behind just playing league games. So, why not try to play the full schedule?

It will be interesting to see what comes out of Thursday’s meeting whatever it may be. My hope is that the virus won’t continue to hold SEC football hostage. The only shocking decision would be if the SEC decided not to play football this fall at all.