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How colleges are planning for return of football and other sports during pandemic

EAST LANSING, MI - AUGUST 30: Michigan State

EAST LANSING, MI - AUGUST 30: Michigan State Spartans defensive tackle Mike Panasiuk (72) and cornerback Josh Butler lead the team out of the tunnel prior to a college football game between the Michigan State Spartans and the Tulsa Golden Hurricane on August 30, 2019 at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, MI. Credit: AP/Adam Ruff/Icon Sportswire

The push for the return of major college football this fall has a stiff wind at its back.

Every state is relaxing stay-at-home orders. The NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball are closer to restarting their seasons. Even the most vigilant governors — New York’s Andrew M. Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom — have advocated for the return of pro sports without fans.

On Wednesday the NCAA Division I Council lifted restrictions allowing athletes in football and basketball back on campuses June 1 with approval of conferences, state and local health officials, and individual schools.

The commissioners of the Power Five conferences — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — are in agreement that a six-week window for workouts and practices should precede the start of the season, now scheduled for the last week in August.

Asked about the ACC stance on the college football season in a Zoom conference last week with reporters, commissioner John Swofford said there is “the anticipation of playing” before adding “there's a lot that can happen between now and then.”

Re-opening campuses, ensuring the health of a team and its support staff, the timing of when programs can actually start practices and whether an on-time start is possible are just a few of the issues.

Here are some questions tied to college football:

Football is the money-maker

College football is the fiscal engine that powers collegiate athletics. It generates most of the revenue for Division I athletic departments, largely supporting the minimum-required 16 sports they sponsor.

It’s a top-to-bottom thing, too. Michigan last year reportedly ran a budget of over $190 million and football brought in over $50 million from the Big Ten’s network television deals and The Big Ten Network and that’s before any game-day revenue including ticket sales, parking and concessions. Stony Brook’s athletics budget is about $30 million and it will earn approximately $500,000 in guaranteed money for the one game it’s scheduled to play at Florida Atlantic of Conference-USA on Sept. 12.

“Football is the elephant in the room,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said on a Zoom conference this week. “From that point of view, it's significant in funding all of our sports and everything we do for our student-athletes. It's also important to our community in a number of ways. Every contest has significant economic impact in central Ohio.”

Many athletic departments are hurting now. They lost the windfall from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament when it was canceled and are facing reduced enrollment and donations due to social distancing measures on campus and skyrocketing national unemployment.

The Division I Council already has been asked about waiver requests from schools to field fewer than the 16 required sports and remain in Division I. It did that to allow Tulane to remain Division I after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, but the council won’t issue blanket waivers.

Who can start and when?

NCAA president Mark Emmert made a declaration earlier this month when he said “if a school doesn’t reopen, they’re not going to be playing sports . . . it’s that simple.”

But what that looks like could vary.

California State University chancellor Timothy White said May 12 that its 23 campuses will hold online classes instead of reopening, seeming to shelve football for three of 12 Mountain West Conference programs: San Diego State, San Jose State and Fresno State.

However, last week San Diego State AD John David Wicker said there will be both in-person and remote learning in a “hybrid model” and that “I think we’re going to play our schedule.”

Penn State hasn’t taken its game against San Jose State off its schedule, either. Though the state of Alabama's infection rates are climbing, Auburn president Jay Gogue insisted in a posted video students will return and football will be played.

Few areas employ stricter anti-viral measures than the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. Could those be relaxed for football at Pac-12 programs Stanford, Cal, UCLA and USC? Cal coach Justin Wilcox said in a Zoom conference last Thursday the Bears could train elsewhere.

“There’s a significant chance it may not be possible that you produce a season where all members are participating in Division I football in the same way," Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick said on a Zoom conference call. “We just have to take the time to figure that out as we go.”

The Big Ten has 14 schools in an 11-state footprint from New Jersey to Nebraska, but Rutgers AD Pat Hobbs said he could envision all starting together, whether on the scheduled opening day or later.

“There’s us, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and now even Iowa — each of us has gone through a steady increase [in cases] and gone through a stretch with pretty strict rules,” he said. “I’m not sure any conference member isn’t facing some of the same questions about . . . the return to campus and the return to play.”

That might not be true for the American Athletic Conference’s 11 football schools, which stretch across nine states from Pennsylvania to Texas. Commissioner Mike Aresco told Sports Illustrated this week, “Let’s say nine or 10 can play and one or two can’t. I think the one or two that can’t play don’t want to hold back the other nine or 10.”

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has advocated for the Power Five conferences to agree on common guidelines including the starting date for training camp and the opening date for competition. “If we want to play a full season, want bowl games and the College Football Playoff, we all have to move together,” he told reporters this month.

Simultaneously, contingencies under consideration are shortening the season to end by Thanksgiving and before a potential second wave, delaying the season’s start until all teams in a conference are ready or playing only conference foes. Swarbrick said a “conference-plus-one” model is more likely and the independent Fighting Irish wouldn’t have scheduling issues.

How about playing in the spring?

Playing college football in the spring of 2021 might allow more time for a vaccine or a verified medical treatment and also might allow the full slate of games to be played, greater fan attendance and the accompanying revenue boost. That remedy, too, has issues.

Networks in that case will have to juggle a huge inventory of live events as college basketball, the NBA and MLB likely will all be in full swing. Also, the NFL Draft begins April 29 and the hundreds of players expected to be drafted might be unwilling to play and risk injury. Already we’ve seen top players pass on bowl games not in the College Football Playoff for this reason.

“Out west, it’s a more popular idea,” Hobbs said. “From a health-care standpoint, you can see the advantages of maybe waiting to the spring: More comfort with the pandemic, a chance for bigger crowds . . . I could see an appetite for college football in the spring.”

Health protocols for players and fans

Containing the coronavirus on an open campus with full dormitories and classrooms will be daunting. Accomplishing that at a football game, including the sidelines and the locker rooms, will require “hospital quality diagnostics,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told FS1 this week.

To go with facial coverings for training, some schools are moving weight rooms outdoors for social-distancing purposes, or they might plan to chemically treat a weight room with long-lasting chemical disinfectants.

There is a consensus that players will be initially tested — and possibly quarantined — when they return. Commissioners in the FBS conferences all describe an in-season testing regimen of 2-4 tests per week. How to deal with an in-season positive test is being debated.

“We're going to have a Tuesday afternoon where somebody tests positive in a locker room and we're going to have to quarantine,” Bowlsby said. “And the game on Saturday is going to be delayed or it's going to be postponed or canceled and we're just going to have to live with those things.”

West Virginia president E. Gordon Gee, whose football program plays in the Big 12, has a different vision.

“I think we’re learning how to control it,” Gee told ESPN this week. “And one thing is that we need to get over the panic . . .  If one of our athletes . . . gets the coronavirus, we can’t just shut the whole thing down. We have to learn to control that part of what we’re doing.”

Persons of a certain age or with underlying conditions are considered especially vulnerable for COVID-19 — including many coaches, security staff, medical personnel and possibly players — and protocols must be developed for their needs.

Fan attendance is being contemplated. Smith said Ohio State has used models that indicate it could have 20,000 or more spectators in 102,000-seat Ohio Stadium for a game.

“Could we implement the current CDC guidelines, state guidelines around physical distancing, mask requirements and all those types of things in an outdoor environment and have obviously significantly less fans than we are used to? I think it's possible,” he said. “I just feel like we have the talent and skill and space capacity to provide an opportunity for a certain number of fans to have access to our particular stadium.”

But Hobbs said Rutgers will defer to local guidance on fans at 53,000-seat SHI Stadium. “Would we like to do that for our fans? Would we like the benefits that come with fans? Absolutely,” he said, “but we have to see what the governor thinks is possible.”

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