The dashboards that post positive COVID-19 test numbers are the new scoreboards for the future of college football. The D1 Ticker, the indispensable daily email that tracks college athletics, reads these days like a college police blotter: “Holy Cross police busted a large off-campus apartment party,” it read over the weekend.
And the news that’s trickling in around the country hints at a tension virtually unimaginable for the first 150 years of college football. For generations, student support has been the rollicking lifeblood of college football. The student section has served as the teeming, visceral, and palpable energy behind programs.
But in a flurry of athletics news the past few days defined by pauses, shutdowns and quarantines, the longtime partnership of college football and the student body is now at odds. It’s all very 2020.
The most important reporting date on the college football calendar has switched from that of the team reporting to camp to students returning to campus, as how universities handle the return of students remains the most fickle variable to the sport returning.
The same collegiate chicanery we’ve long associated with college football – packed bars, wall-to-wall parties and front-porch kegs – is now being viewed as the biggest obstacle to both the sport and, on a grander scale, the ability for higher education to function traditionally this fall.
“It’s the biggest threat to the university remaining open,” West Virginia president Gordon Gee told Yahoo Sports. “I have a bullhorn and I’m going to drive around and when I see you improperly partying, I’m gonna stop, pull out my bullhorn and yell, ‘Wear your damn masks!’”
As we’ve seen all around the country the past week – from Notre Dame to Texas Tech, North Carolina to Oklahoma and NC State to Alabama, the return of students to campus has translated, predictably, to disruption in the college football calendar. The upticks in the virus were predictable, especially for those schools that didn’t test students upon return.
Florida State president John Thrasher wrote a scathing open letter to students on Tuesday. He scolded them for their “sheer defiance” and said he was “deeply concerned,” pointing out seven students were “arrested and charged” for holding an open house party. “We will not tolerate any behavior that puts the health and safety of the campus or the Tallahassee community at risk,” Thrasher wrote in the letter.
Those words are curious when juxtaposed by FSU’s decision to allow tailgating for home games this season, which prompted one epidemiologist to say, “Just kill each other already.”
That letter followed the most recent flurry of news on Tuesday. Texas Tech announced 21 active cases of COVID-19. (The Red Raiders are pressing on and practicing.) At NC State, they’ve paused all athletic activities and WRAL reported that State’s opener against Virginia Tech “could be delayed.” (Both share an open date on Sept. 26). Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley revealed that one of his position groups has been nearly wiped out from the virus, as it’s down to one player and the position takes more than that to operate. All of those, of course, came in the wake of students returning to campus.
The portrait that’s emerging from programs across the country this week, just days from the FCS opener and nearly a week from the FBS opener, is of a season that will double as a slog. Students returning to campus and contact tracing have always loomed as the biggest obstacles to colleges playing football this fall. And what’s been lost in the recent discourse, protests and shutdowns is that those remain the biggest obstacles to the six of the 10 FBS conferences that are playing.
What’s changed the past few months are the administrative views. Commissioners and athletic directors have evolved from never being able to play without students on campus to remarking how much the “bubble” can stay intact around programs if students aren’t around. Some smaller leagues like the AAC and Conference USA have chucked the optics of only playing football in the fall and decided to do just that.
The so-called stomach for administrators has also been unexpected, as the notion of week-to-week schedule changes, the loss of personnel groupings and the entire season relying on the social whims of 18-to-22-year-olds now seems more acceptable in real time than it did in theory months ago.
Perhaps seeing MLB muscle through some of its early struggles has emboldened presidents. Perhaps seeing the volume of backlash that the Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren has received for his handling of the conference’s decision to cancel fall football has sunk in the back of their minds.
But the reality of this un-bubbled attempt to play a season is unfolding before us. “I think in a given week, 20 to 25 percent of the games could get canceled or postponed,” an FBS AD told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday.
The start of the season, which appeared shaky as recently as two weeks ago, now seems inevitable. So do the hiccups, interruptions and disruption that appear to be riding shotgun. The season is shaping up as a sprint to the start and a trudge to the finish.
“Do I think we’re going to get 12 games in? Absolutely not.” said another FBS AD. “Do I think we’ll get eight to 10 in? Possibly. Do I think we’ll get to six to eight in? Yes. But if we don’t start, we have no shot. We’re so close, we have to get started.”
No one could have predicted that students and college football could suddenly develop into bitter rivals after more than a century of being trusty companions. As college football trudges toward opening kickoff, the sport’s most integral supporters loom as a defining obstacle.
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