There doesn’t seem to be any real news to report on the return of college athletics to competition at the moment.
I write that with some bit of trepidation, as any columnist would. Things are always fluid and during this time of total readjustment in our lives good or bad news can break before you know it.
But at least for the moment, college athletics is in a bit of a waiting game because of the coronavirus. That doesn’t mean Big 5 conference commissioners and athletics directors aren’t being active. They are working with any number or scenarios and contingencies to make sure if there is any way possible for teams to return to the field this September that it will happen.
When I say teams that does include soccer, volleyball, and cross country, but it mostly means football. While the revenue generated by the basketball and baseball programs at a school like the University of Arkansas are important, without football the bills can’t be payed. Few athletic programs if any could afford to go on for very long if that football revenue is not there to tote the note.
FCS teams like Arkansas State need for the Power 5 conferences to play and be profitable, too. The check that the Red Wolves will pick up Sept. 19 for playing at Michigan injects fuel in to ASU’s program that can’t be replaced.
So, Plan A for the Razorbacks to return to the playing field that Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek outlined last week to the UA Board of Trustees looks a lot like the norm.
It’s a plan that is very hopeful, and one that I personally hope goes off without a hitch, but even as the state and country begin to slowly and incrementally get back to work and commerce, you don’t have to be very intuitive to anticipate that adjustments will have to be made for college football to resume this fall.
Just how much adjustment, we don’t know.
However the probability of needing adjustment is why the Power 5 conferences probably have a dozen or more contingency plans they are working on beyond the best-case scenario that Yurachek outlined last week that would have players on campus by mid July for training, conditioning and walk-through practices with actual practices starting in early August and games beginning as scheduled Sept. 5.
At issue is how Arkansas and the other states with SEC programs work through the three-phase program of guidelines for reopening business. Arkansas and several other SEC states are in the opening days and weeks of Phase One. It’s too soon to know when any state will advance to Phase 2 or Phase 3.
We also don’t know how far along in the phases a state or area would have to be for players to be able to resume workouts together in mid July or August.
If Eastern Arkansas is still considered “hot” because of the number of cases in the prisons located there and its close proximity to a large population area like Memphis, but Northwest Arkansas has entered Phase 2 or 3 by July, will practice begin?
In this hypothetical instance, the hot spot is nearly 300 miles away. Should that keep the Razorbacks from beginning to practice?
I don’t think so, but if Northwest Arkansas became hot with coronavirus cases sometime in the next six weeks, maybe it should.
What about fan attendance?
If the Memphis, Dallas, or Houston areas are still struggling with the highly infectious nature of the virus, would fans from those areas be allowed to travel to Northwest Arkansas to attend games where the virus is under control?
Could that start an outbreak in Northwest Arkansas?
Of course there are road games, too.
If South Bend, Ind. has moved into Phase 3 by Sept. 12 when Notre Dame is scheduled to host the Razorbacks, but the bulk of Arkansas is just in Phase 2, do the folks in South Bend really want a bunch of possibly contagious Arkansas fans invading their fair campus?
Or if Arkansas has the virus contained in September, but South Bend doesn’t, do we really want several thousand Razorback fans traveling to South Bend for what admittedly is one of the most attractive single matchups in the program’s history just to bring a new round of infection back to our state?
Again this is just a hypothetical. I could ask a similar question about any game on any SEC team’s schedule.
Safety of the players is the primary concern. Games won’t be played unless there is a modicum of safety for the student-athletes, coaches, and staff. However, keeping thousands of fans safe from spreading the infection is a totally different prospect.
This is the kind of stuff the braintrusts in the Power 5 conferences are mulling over, and they have absolutely no concrete facts to base their decisions on at the moment. These sort of questions are also why so many sports commentators question whether games will be played this year or not.
It appears Major League Baseball might be the first of America’s major teams sports to return to action. The MLB owners approved a plan Monday that would restart baseball in July, and they are reportedly presenting it to the MLB Player’s Association today.
Obviously there’s more than a few complicated issues the two organizations must wrangle through to get back on the diamond, but if Major League Baseball can begin play in July, it would illuminate the way for college football to return.
While the sports are very different, many of the issues and challenges for staging a game in our new coronavirus culture are similar. College football would able to learn what MLB does right and just as importantly what the MLB gets wrong or could have done better.
I’m optimistic that we are going to have college football this fall in some form or fashion. The entirety of college athletics as we know it all but rides upon a college football season of some sort.
However, it’s going to be different than in the past. We’ll all have to adjust. In whatever form or fashion college football does come in this fall, I’m going to cherish it because this old world just hasn’t been as fun this spring without college athletics.