Friday marked three months until LSU is scheduled to kick off its 2020 football season against Texas San Antonio in Tiger Stadium.
A little less than three months ago, when the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament and NBA were shut down and the rest of the sports world was put on ice by the coronavirus pandemic, it was hard to figure out where we would be at this point.
We have learned to deal with the virus and we have learned to weigh the risks, to the point where sports organizations and leagues everywhere have or have significant plans to reopen. The notable exception being major league baseball, of course, which threatens to bicker itself into oblivion and go the way of boxing as one of this nation’s biggest and now diminished sports.
In that time, we’ve gone from “Will there be college football?” to “It looks like there will be football but no fans” to “How many fans can we get into the games and play a full season?” At least that was my takeaway after spending an hour-plus Thursday with LSU athletic director Scott Woodward during our Advocate Town Hall question and answer session.
LSU athletic director Scott Woodward feels optimistic LSU will play football this fall with fans in the stands, though a final decision will not come until sometime in July.
Despite the daunting challenges and fearful prospects, Woodward has always managed to keep his glass half full when dealing with the pandemic and all its many unknowns. That glass got filled a little more this week as LSU football and basketball players started coming back to campus with an eye to resuming voluntary workouts Monday.
“I am very, very optimistic we’re going to play football,” Woodward said Thursday, “and that we’re going to play in front of a lot of fans.”
There was no firm number in “a lot of fans,” but Woodward implied potentially tens of thousands, though wisely stayed short of predicting we will see Tiger Stadium at full capacity this fall. And, in my mind, LSU and other schools are going to have to do something to regulate tailgating, where tens of thousands of folks press in close quarters all over campus for hours and hours.
The next step is what one might call the King Solomon scenario: how do Woodward and LSU decide to split the proverbial baby of thousands of fans clamoring to get into Tiger Stadium this fall to play Alabama, Texas and Ole Miss and the rest?
LSU isn't interested in a home-and-home football series with Tulane, has talked with Michigan about playing for the first time ever and is eye…
It isn’t time for that just yet, Woodward said. Again, in the diminishing gulf of time remaining, he anticipates sometime around mid-July that LSU will have to decide on numbers in the stands, how to get people in, people out, address bottlenecks within what in parts a nearly 90 to 100-year-old stadium and how to keep everyone safe. Woodward used his elderly parents as an example, saying he would encourage them to watch from home, but didn’t say any age groups would be banned from attending either.
“We just don’t know how we’re going to do this yet,” Woodward said.
Fair enough. There is much to learn yet about the virus, how to deal with it, and the prospects of checking fans entering the stadium for signs of illness or even having them walk through disinfecting misters.
Of course, this all implies safety for fans will only go to a point. As Woodward said, fans and those of us now venturing haltingly back out into the world from whatever pandemic exile we found ourselves in must assume some degree of risk. He equated it to driving 65 or 70 mph on the interstate as compared to 15 mph. The latter will likely get you from Baton Rouge to New Orleans in about five hours, give or take, with very little chance of a serious accident. That risk increases with the speed needed to shrink the travel time to an hour.
Then there is the not so small matter of safety for players, coaches and game personnel. Testing is going to be a near constant companion and a necessity, as demonstrated by reports that as many as five Alabama football players and three Oklahoma State football players tested positive for the virus after being tested upon their return to campus.
How to isolate players (before and after someone tests positive) and educate them (yes, they are going to have to go to class somehow) are issues still to be worked out as well. At this point there is still time. Neither LSU nor any other school needs the whole game plan, just a couple of key formations.
But as Woodward said, “We need football.” We need the thrill of it on a Saturday afternoon or night and schools need it financially. As has been said, if there is no college football season this fall, we may not recognize college athletics in the near future. Three months out, at least, the rewards of playing appear to be outpacing the risk.