CSJ Roundtable: The Great Debate About Reopening College Sports In The Fall

During an ordinary offseason, during an ordinary May, the writers here at College Sports Journal would be in the middle of looking over 2020 fall rosters and doing football team evaluations for the upcoming year.

But this isn’t an ordinary offseason by any definition.

There are still fundamental unanswered questions about the viability of having a college sports season this fall. While every college sports fan has a deep-seated desire to start the college sports season that we know and love, can it be done safely?

I put these thorny questions to our writers at College Sports Journal for a roundtable on these issues.

Question: What should it take to have college sports reopen?

Ray Maloney, CSJ: As a student trainer in college many years ago, we put each athlete through a series of tests and measurements to make certain they were healthy and properly equipped. Times certainly have changed since then, with advances made in medicine and equipment, but the safety and well being of each and every athlete remains paramount.

We are more than three months away from the first competitions of the fall. That is plenty of time for schools to make sure all staff, returning athletes and incoming freshman are tested prior to arrival on campus and testing done throughout the year.

Ben Schleiger, CSJ: It should take a responsible effort of the coaching and training staff to self monitor and report temperatures, symptoms, and impose self quarantines if necessary.

Universal COVID-19 testing, to me, is a utopian idea. Here in Colorado our governor secured testing and protection materials, just to have the federal government interfere and redistribute based on our need of materials we secured independently. The rest they gave to other states and/or kept. 

Testing is also expensive. Unless you’re insurance is amazing or a clinic is footing the bill, the COVID test bills have been leaked on Twitter as costing $3,000 plus for one person. This may be an individual set of cases, but the financial burden already is great. If COVID tests remain that expensive, football programs could be further crippled. Also, hospitals cannot keep up with the demand in hotspot areas now, how are we to expect a university to do any better than the professionals? 

Testing will not prevent the spread or limit anyone who has exposed others before that point or make them better or even tell us for how long that person had been infected. Responsible behavior to self isolate and trust that fellow athletes and coaches will not risk others is the realistic goal – no one wants to realize is the best case scenario. 

Kent Schmidt, CSJ: I think that college sports should reopen when it is fairly safe to have larger crowds again.  To me, this means we need to have more testing of fans and athletes to know where we sit.  As a fan, I want to know the fan in the seat next to me in the stadium is not a carrier of this awful virus. 

I saw a statistic that in Iowa, only one in 10 people have been tested in the entire state. I believe this ratio is a similar number across the entire United States. 

The cases in Iowa and other fairly low populated states where there have been major outbreaks are due to industries where workers are not adhering to the six foot rule of social distancing.  Can you imagine the spread when a crowd of 15,000+ fans are that close together for several Saturdays this fall? 

I am not saying that we need everyone tested, but we do need better statistics to know where we stand.  

I think a slow or delayed opening of the season might help in these times of uncertainty, but with many lower level football divisions needing the attendance dollars to keep their athletic budgets flowing, I just can’t see football starting until there is a vaccine or cure – or until we have at least more testing.   

Jamie Williams, CSJ: There has to be wide range testing that is readily available where results are accurate and available quickly. Without testing, the virus can spread quickly and unknowingly.

Stadiums would have to take precautions with their entrances and exits from the arena. For a time, wearing a mask may need to be required.  Perhaps sitting a checkerboard pattern, to enforce social distancing, might be needed too.

Chuck Burton, CSJ: When it comes to stuff like this, I tend to look to the advice of pros like Dr. Anthony S. Fauci. Recently, in a New York Times interview, he gave the following guidelines I agreed with:

We’ve got to make sure that when we try to get back to normal, including being able to play baseball in the summer and football in the fall and basketball in the winter, that when we do come back to some form of normality, we do it gradually and carefully. And when cases do start to rebound — which they will, no doubt — that we have the capability of identifying, isolating and contact tracing.

Resuming college sports in my opinion involves a much more robust and accurate way of testing than America has today. Also, we’re going to need to make some more breakthroughs about virus containment. They might be around the corner – but we haven’t seen them yet.

As Ray noted, sports is not a risk-free endeavor. Some level of risk is inherent in sport. But the new level of risk will require new calculations of risk as well. What new level of risk is acceptable? Some sort of consensus will need to form.

There’s been talk of possibly playing part or all of the season in front of no fans or seriously limited numbers of fans. Do you think that will work?

Jamie: In football, I dont think the FCS or G5 could work without fans monetarily for the schools. Without sizable TV revenue, the budgets are driven by attendance and money at the turnstiles.

With fans, but with enforced social distancing in a checkerboard pattern, might work. But how do you police it, especially at the entrance and exit to and from the stadium? In theory it could work, but in practice? I am not so sure.

Ray: We must have fans. Anything less is inviting the gutting of college athletic programs. Football and men’s basketball are the cash cows that virtually every other program relies on with a few rare exceptions.

Without the revenue generated from ticket sales, concessions and such administrators will look to “recover” that lost revenue by simply eliminating other programs.

And how would social distancing in a stadium or arena work? Would they limit ticket sales? Who then would be eligible to buy a ticket and who would not?

Kent: I don’t like the idea of playing any college sports in empty stadiums.  This may work for professional sports, as TV can broadcast each game and the schools garner revenue this way.  Maybe the Power Five Conference schools in football could get away with this, but the Group of Five, FCS, and lower divisions can not make this work as they do not have this television revenue stream. 

College sports in my opinion is made for live attendence for alumni and fans of the schools and without it, we really don’t have college athletics.  

Chuck: Internal to every college athletics program right now, there are many plans being floated right now on possible live attendance, possible competition without fans, and venue preparation (making sure things are disinfected for both fans and players and support staff).

If there can be live attendance, fans had better be mentally prepared for a very different fan experience than prior years. I think no matter what, the fan experience will not go back to what it was any time soon – not until there’s a vaccine.

There’s also been talk about delaying the start of the season, playing a shorter season, or even having competition in the spring. Can that work?

Ray: That doesn’t make any sense. Delaying the season to wait for a vaccine sounds great on the surface, and while progress is reportedly being made there are no guarantees that one will be found. The virus is six months old, and we are being asked to put our lives on hold until a vaccine can be developed. Things like cancer and the flu, and other ailments, have existed much longer and no cures for those exist either. Why change the timetable?

The bottom line is that we unknowingly risk our lives each and every day and none of us are guaranteed tomorrow.

Ben: University Presidents, Mayors, Governors, and admin staff are the people who should make that decision. Their jobs are to keep people safe. They will take the precautions they need to regardless of how much we, as fans, like sports.

Our job is to yell into the night how much we love sports and how unfair life is. Their job is to make sure their jurisdiction runs to the best level it can while preserving safety. If they say no sports, since they don’t want any athletes, coaches or fans to get sick and/ or die, who are we to question that motive?

I think there are possible pathways to move forward and make it possible to have a season, but I do not have any doubts if any level of the admin structure is afraid that we will be postponing fall sports.

Jamie: I think anything and everything is on the table. Flexibility is a must. Teams may have to re-work schedules to do zero flights in the middle of the season. Everything has to be a bus ride potentially .

A shortened schedule dampens the season, but if each team plays eight conference only games, it may be feasible.

A delayed schedule is probably the most likely option. There is nothing that says the football season just has to run the fall semester. If the protocols demand, a season could start late in the year and run to spring, or football could become a spring sport this year. There are many options. But its all going to be dictated by local, state and federal direction and not the NCAA. 

Chuck: Believe me, if there’s anything that quarantine has taught me is that people want to watch football all year round. But I have a very hard time convincing myself that delaying a 2020 football season to the spring of 2021 makes much sense for anyone.

How can anyone in good conscience have students have preseason camp in December, play in February through April, play some sort of postseason in May, and then turn around and play again in the fall? Even professionals don’t play six months of football out of the year – that to me seems to be asking for a ton injuries, not to mention a serious rethink about whether these football players can still be considered amateurs. This could all still be playing out without a COVID-19 vaccine, too. It seems insane to me.

A much more likely scenario in my mind is perhaps a delayed truncated season that takes place in 2020, which could be done with some level of flexibility. If you made the commitment to no postseason competition, it would be even more flexible.

Bottom line – should college sports reopen?

Kent: The simple answer is that we don’t know what we don’t know with COVID-19.  With other diseases that spread from human to human contact, we have an idea on how to treat and cure these.  We just don’t know this virus well enough yet to know what we can and cannot do.  I would find it very irresponsible for college adminstrators to open up college athletes and fans at risk for what I would consider non-essestial reasons.  Until these answers are better defined, college sports should remain closed.  

I believe with the current status of reopening many states, it will cause another spike in the number of cases later this summer and will cause a further delay.  But on the other hand, I really don’t think we can just wait and hope for a cure, so there has to be a balance of reopening and still keeping our country isolated for the pure economic fallout it will cause. 

To me, this means that we should first start to allow small gatherings and work our way up to larger gatherings.  This timing will be very unlikely to time perfectly with a a late August start to the college football and other fall sports seasons.  

I don’t believe college sports should reopen this fall without knowing how safe it is overall for not just your state or region but the country as a whole.

Ray:  They most certainly should reopen. Society needs to return to some semblance of normalcy.

Looking specifically at college athletics, any deviation from the norm is going to forever alter the landscape. If football, or any other sport, is played without fans, schools are going to lose an enormous amount of money generated from ticket sales.

The only way schools are going to be able to offset those losses is by cutting sports. And wrestling, since the passage of Title IX in 1972, has historically proven to be the first on the chopping block. But sports like cross country, volleyball, gymnastics, among many others will become casualties at the hands of college administrators. Unfortunately, the way the system exists right now, that’s tied to the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball.

We all better hope fall sports start on time or the future of college sports is going to become a barren wasteland of what we have grown to love.

Jamie: As long as the cases have gone down and the virus has slowed, sports should reopen.

Can college football, especially the FCS survive without fans in attendance? Sure. But without that football revenue, a lot of schools would be forced to jettison other sports potentially. 

I don’t think Labor Day weekend has to be a date set in stone. There are many ways the season can be started later if that’s what the virus dictates. Of course, anything now is simply speculation. 

Ben: Yes. Ultimately these kids have a limited amount of time and each practice, game, and season passed is something they can’t get back. The virus is something to be taken seriously, but at some point we have to figure out how to get back to some versions of life.

It should be done responsibly, but at this point some states are okay and the message is to still live in panic of the virus. I’m much more worried about the economy, Universities and sports programs survival,  the jobs of vendors, and the opportunity for these athletes to have a chance to have a small slice of normalcy.  

Chuck: To me this is such a difficult question to answer because it feels like we are missing knowledge and missing infrastructure about the virus. The information zone on COVID-19 is so flooded with different voices it feels like different people are operating on different assumptions about the virus. And infrastructure in the United States for testing, isolating and preventing seems so behind and disorganized at a national level, it is extremely dispiriting.

With the void in leadership in America on testing, I increasingly think that college sports might look to sports overseas as to what a version of college sports might look like in the fall. Korean baseball, with masks and no fans, might be one model. If the German Bundesliga manages to resume competitions in some way, that might be another.

But the one thing that seems like it’s going to be a prerequisite for competitions is more testing and more accurate testing. Without that, it’s hard to see how competition resumes. It’s also going to be interesting to see what the KBO or Bundesliga does when one of the athletes tests positive for COVID-19. Somebody will.

For college sports, I think one question that is looming about all of this stuff is the whole amateur athlete model. In football in the Power 5 conferences, there are a lot of conference commissioners, athletic directors and head coaches who seem to be making decisions to almost force athletes to play a season. The voices of the athletes themselves are eerily absent from the discussion. If college coaches end up compelling college football athletes to play two entire college football seasons in 2021, it’s going to be hard to consider the athletes as anything but employees of the university.

There’s also the element that college sports are not professional sports. Many pay for the privilege to learn and compete. Their perspective is very different than an athlete that is getting a salary from a professional franchise. Are college campuses safe? Is going back to campus worth it? Each athlete is going to have to make that risk assessment.

These are some pretty daunting issues to overcome – but I also don’t think it’s insurmountable. Testing will get better the more the experts discover about COVID-19 – but there is no time to waste. There are ways to have competitions – but we need to change how we think of them. Athletes want more than anything to get back to competition – but won’t put up with being treated like meat, or putting themselves in unnecessary risk, to do so.

What’s frustrating is that it feels like we should be much farther along towards college sports than we actually are. The clock is ticking. More progress needs to be made if we want college sports in the fall.

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