As a group, college athletic directors are not first responders or COVID-19 healthcare workers or grocery store employees bravely facing a constant barrage of customers who have a chance of infecting them. But they are tasked with making huge decisions that will have impacts not just for this month but for years, with no way of knowing exactly what the future holds. Imagine picking your way through a dark, unfamiliar room without bumping into any of the furniture.
In talking to South Louisiana ADs last week for a story on the coronavirus impact, a picture emerges of what could be in store if and when college athletics resume this fall. So, I thought it would be a good opportunity to give some opinions to questions for which we all want answers.
Opinions, as Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen, even an educated one as his own, aren’t worth a great deal of currency given our global situation. More like guesses. But educated guesses are all we have to go on at this point, so here we go:
College athletic directors are adept at adapting.
Will there be a college football season? Yes, assuming there is enough testing. “Enough testing” is a well-worn phrase these days, but it is tantamount to playing a 2020 football season. This also leads to a huge number of concurrent issues like whether players, coaches, and maybe even referees would have to be quarantined. But if the logistical hurdles can be cleared, the games can go on.
Will the season start on time? LSU director of strength and conditioning Tommy Moffitt said last Monday on the “LSU Sixty” radio show that it would take a month of conditioning and training before a month of preseason practices could begin.
The first college football games are scheduled for Aug. 29. The first game for Louisiana teams is Thursday, Sept. 3, with Southeastern at Tulane, followed by a host of games Sept. 5, including UTSA at LSU and McNeese State at UL. So, backing out two months from that weekend, using Moffitt’s timetable as a guide, teams would have to begin supervised conditioning work July 1 or shortly thereafter for the season to start on time.
Actually, though, LSU athletic director Scott Woodward said in his discussions with Moffitt, getting players back in the weight room at some point in June is the more desirable goal.
That’s doable, if the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics (IHME) forecast can be achieved. That projected Louisiana could “relax social distancing” by May 18 “with containment strategies that include testing, contact tracing, isolation and limiting gathering size.”
But that’s a tough deadline to reach. More likely, the season will have to be delayed at least a few weeks to a month or more to meet those necessary goals. And it is important to remember that all states and all parts of states are not on the same timeline. Here are the dates for reaching “containment strategy” for the states that have teams LSU would play this season:
• Alabama: May 18
• Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas: June 1
• Arkansas: June 22
Will there be fans in the stands? I refer you back to the IHME statement on “limiting gathering size.” It is difficult to envision full stadiums without a coronavirus vaccine, which they tell us is virtually impossible to arrive at this calendar year, or herd immunity, where more than half the population has contracted the virus and has some immunity to it. That’s especially critical for older populations who are more vulnerable and, as Southern athletic director Roman Banks reminded, make up a huge amount of fan bases such as his.
So the notion of, say, 102,000 people packing Tiger Stadium on Nov. 7 for the LSU-Alabama game, plus at least another 100,000 people on campus tailgating, becomes an absurd proposition. But Tiger Stadium is a big, big place, and spreading a few thousand people (plus the band) 6 or 8 or 10 feet apart and enforcing social distancing at concession stands and in restrooms may be doable. How you decide who that will be or what the cutoff is in terms of numbers is difficult to figure. Perhaps the number of seats in a stadium and distancing limits at the time will be the guide.
But a traditional Saturday night in Tiger Stadium, or elsewhere, is something we shouldn’t expect to see until 2021.
Can they play a full season? You have to believe there will be every attempt to do so. There is a lot of talk about schools only playing conference games, but non-conference contests are enormously important to Group of Five conference and FCS teams who need them to help balance budgets that will be tightened to begin with.
UL, for example, is set to make $1.3 million from a Nov. 21 game at Missouri. And it has that game with McNeese, which is similarly important to the Cowboys' coffers.
“It all matters,” UL athletic director Bryan Maggard said. “I certainly hope we can find a way to play all 12 games with fans in the stands, even if that means pushing (the start) to October or November.”
What that would mean to bowl games and the College Football Playoff will have to be figured out on the fly. But those problems would be good problems to have in the greater context of whether the season will be played at all.