Column: No Matter When We Play, Please Have a Plan

By Kevin Sweeney

If you’re speaking in certainties about college sports right now, you’re doing it wrong.

That said, it’s July now. The first weekend of college football is less than two months away. We’re only a little over four weeks away from the first big wave of planned campus reopenings on August 10. The decisions that have been labeled “wait and see” have seen the waiting period nearly elapse.

After the initial questions of late March and April, college administrators and the power brokers of college athletics have operated with a degree of blissful ignorance — seemingly with a view that coronavirus cases would continue to decline, at least until a potential “second wave” in the fall/winter. Initial state reopenings in the college-sports-centric South went well, athletes were brought back to campus for June workouts: all was going according to plan. That is, until it wasn’t.

A few team outbreaks happened, mostly due to athletes enjoying their time outside of workouts a little too much. Players were quarantined, and some schools even shut down workouts. Those outbreaks coincided with case growth nationally, bringing the same states that had originally declared victory against COVID-19 to record-high case counts. While deaths have yet to begin increasing nationally, more community spread is undoubtedly a bad thing. It’s also a significant challenge in bringing thousands of people back to school, let alone traveling and playing sports. In a world where a positive test means two weeks of quarantine, even if asymptomatic, a constant stream of positives makes a return to sports bumpy if not dangerous.

What does all this mean? Well, it means that we’re back to the laundry list of contingency plans that were first floated this spring: delayed season, conference-only season, spring season, even no season at all. There’s even a model that would involve starting college basketball early, allowing for a break in the winter with schools planning extended Christmas holidays for their regular students. Most of these discussions are related to football and other fall sports, but virtually everyone in college sports knows that football drives the bus. Whatever decision is made with college football will have significant impacts on college basketball, and it’s hard to believe administrators making a decision as drastic as moving college football to the spring wouldn’t create significant reverberations in the college basketball world. In short: if they aren’t playing in November, neither are we.

As of now, it seems the most popular contingency plan is a spring season of some kind. Reportedly, the Ivy League is planning a spring conference-only football season beginning in April. While that’s likely the best possible setup purely from a virus standpoint, it’s certainly not a feasible one for FBS teams given the timing of the NFL Draft and the injury challenges of two seasons so close together. It’s impossible to get a consensus given everything is hypothetical and every AD has a slightly different vision, but it seems that “spring” football would begin in January or at latest early February. If that’s the case, a logical jumping-off point for basketball would be a conference-only season beginning in January and running through March, or potentially a full-length season starting in January that would go until late April or early May.

I have mixed emotions about spring college football and basketball. Quite frankly, these sports have to play eventually. There’s too much money at stake not to, and the long-term effects on college athletics of a truly lost year would be astronomical. If an extra four months for football and eight weeks for basketball is the price to ensure we get something done, I’ll pay it. But it’s imperative that decision-makers know what they are signing up for with a delayed season.

The coronavirus won’t be gone by January 1. Even if optimistic timetables for vaccines are met, the process of acquiring and subsequently vaccinating thousands of student-athletes will take time. Is it possible that by February 1 all FBS athletes could be vaccinated? Based on my reading, yes. Is it likely? No. Perhaps an effective treatment is all that’s needed, with reports suggesting the fall as a reasonable timeframe. College athletes are already at extremely low risk of a bad outcome — having a good treatment that cuts mortality and hospitalization rates even further might be enough for schools to push forward. It’s also possible that simply “controlling” the coronavirus would be enough: quite frankly, if all of college sports was being played in the northeast where cases are low right now, I’d imagine there would be a lot less concern.

The bottom line is this: decision-makers shouldn’t make plans only based on hope that things will be better in January. It’s quite possible it will be. It’s also quite possible that things appear under control by September or October, then surge again as we hit the winter months. Will college administrators be any more ready to play then if case numbers are the same and vaccines haven’t been developed?

Instead, the buzz of spring football feels very similar the buzz of a semi-normal fall season of several weeks ago: relatively blind optimism. It’s perhaps harsh to say administrators wasted the last three months, but it’s difficult to describe their actions as anything more than “let’s cross that bridge when we get there.” A spring season can’t just be a punt of responsibility for a few months: it has to be met with a real, actionable plan: testing protocols across conferences or even nationwide, travel arrangements, and even things like how many positives leads to a forfeit or a shutdown of facilities. The fact that all these questions are attempting to be answered on the fly right now speaks to the lack of organization throughout college athletics in the critical months of April, May, and June.

There can be no COVID-proof plan: a bubble isn’t feasible in college sports, and as of now it’s not totally clear that bubbles will work. But failing to come together as a collective to figure out logistics sooner rather than later will lead to more bumps down the line — no matter when they decide to actually play the games.

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