In my corner of the masked-up, hand-sanitizer-basted world, there is one question that pushes every other question out to the margins:
“Are we going to have a football season?”
“We” can mean LSU. “We” can mean the Saints. “We” can mean high schools. Or it can be the collective football experience that we have all come to expect with clockwork-like regularity, as potboiling August gives way to still-simmering September.
Unfortunately, there is a player in the mix this season that casts a shadow over everything else: COVID-19.
Like you, I won’t be buying his replica jersey.
College athletes could receive another year of eligibility from the NCAA if they decide to opt out of the fall season due to coronavirus concerns.
Now that the conference-by-conference flurry of cancelations and affirmations have settled down for the moment, I have mentally typed up a stock answer to the aforementioned anxious question:
“They’re going to start the season. Whether they can finish is another matter.”
“They” can be LSU, the Saints, high schools, or even leagues like the Southwestern Athletic Conference that have kicked the excruciating dilemma of whether to play to sometime in early 2021.
The latter group — which, of course, now includes the Big Ten and Pac-12, along with conferences like the Southland — is hoping that sometime after the new year will be a better time to play football.
While I understand the reasoning for conferences like the SWAC and Southland, with their reliance on ticket revenue and lack of mega-television contracts, for the Pac-12 and Big Ten the decision seems a fool’s errand. It feels more like someone who doesn’t want to deliver bad news in person and keeps putting off the dirty work until a later date.
If the science and local mandates say playing fall football is a bad idea today, it’s hard to imagine how a spring football season is going to be much better for the big leagues.
Yes, it's possible, if not probable, we will have a vaccine for coronavirus around the beginning of 2021. But will vaccines and therapeutics be widely available for football players in January or February over those that can be had for first responders and medical personnel and teachers? When the majority of football players fall broadly into the “young and healthy” category, I think not.
Just as important is the demand of playing two seasons in one calendar year, assuming a normal season can be played next fall. For former LSU All-American and ESPN football analyst Marcus Spears, it’s an unworkable solution.
“I’m not a fan,” said Spears, who begins his new stint Monday as an analyst on ESPN’s “NFL Live.” “A lot of draft-eligible guys will say, ‘Hell, no.’
“For years we’ve talked about what is the concept of a student-athlete. If you ask them to play two seasons in one year, there’s no way to deny them a paycheck. Especially when they know it’s all for financial gain. I know I wouldn’t play two seasons in one year. No way.”
I not only cover college football for a living, I’m a fan of the game as well. And while part of me would be quite pleased to see real, meaningful football played for nine or 10 months out of the calendar year in 2021, it doesn’t seem realistic.
Better for the big leagues like the Southeastern Conference, ACC and Big 12 to do what they’re doing. Try to make a go of it in the fall — assuming it's feasible, with as many safeguards in place as possible, with room for postponements and schedule-juggling should the need arise because of outbreaks.
As we've seen, all of these conferences have been left to blaze their own trails into the foggy pandemic unknown. It has revealed the clear and desperate need for centralized leadership for college football.
In terms of major college football, the Power Five and the Group of Five conferences, the NCAA has long ago abdicated leadership and governance in many important areas. The NCAA still enforces rules when it comes to recruiting and makes the rules when it comes to what is a catch and what constitutes targeting — well, sort of.
But when it comes to sport-wide policy, especially in the face of something as dangerous and life-altering as a pandemic, the NCAA has proven to be more woefully impotent than it often appears to be.
If NCAA President and former LSU Chancellor Mark Emmert can’t dictate to conferences whether they should play; if he can't make decisions on bowl games, championships and television contracts, perhaps someone can.
It is high time for some sort of “football czar,” appointed by college football’s loose affiliation of practitioners, who can make decisions they all have to follow. Much like major league owners hired Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis as baseball’s first commissioner in the wake of the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” gambling scandal.
The NCAA's leading doctors once thought it would be safe to play fall sports by now.
Who could that person be? How about Urban Meyer? Or, better yet, Nick Saban? Certainly, every non-Alabama football fan could get behind a Saban candidacy. Also throw in the Crimson Tide fans who think the game as passed Saban by since he lost two whole games last season to rivals LSU and Auburn.
As much as anything, someone is needed in this time of crisis to say to everyone, from the SEC to the SWAC, from the Pac-12 to the Ivy League, “Make a go of a season this fall,” or, “The season is off, or at least on hold.”
I don’t know what someone in that position would have decided to do. But I’m pretty certain no one would have used that power to suggest this bifurcated, split-level hodgepodge of a season, with some conferences playing in the fall and others playing in the spring.
Meanwhile, in reality, we’re left with this cold tailgating dish, an unappetizing mix that is unlikely to satisfy anyone completely.
Are we going to have a football season? It depends whom you ask and where you are.