The latest whipsaw development in the tortured path toward a college football season is this: They’re going to try to play.
We have collectively lurched between pessimism and optimism four or five times now. There were moments when a season seemed like an impossibility, and others when it seemed like an inevitability. But after the latest dip in confidence earlier this month, as virus numbers soared across America, we somewhat surprisingly have arrived at the doorstep of August with a plan. It may not be built on much more than hope and hubris, but there is a plan.
That plan does not involve spring 2021. Not yet, and seemingly not ever beyond a last option. The voices calling for that have gone quiet.
The push for fall ball continues and the resolve seems to have intensified as the plans have come into focus. The presidents and chancellors of several conferences could have thrown the brakes on this week, and they collectively did not.
So we press on. The Atlantic Coast Conference intends to start preseason camp next week and begin games the second week of September. The Southeastern Conference intends to start camp next week and begin games Sept. 26th. The Pacific-12 announced Friday that it intends to start camp Aug. 17th and begin games Sept. 26th, and even released a full schedule of opponents and dates. Some Big 12 teams started camp Friday and intend to begin games Aug. 29th. The only Power-5 conference that has not yet started the countdown to launch is the Big Ten, which sent a memo to league schools Thursday saying that it hopes to make a call on whether to start preseason camp within the next five days.
The Group of Five conferences (American Athletic, Mountain West, Conference USA, Sun Belt and Mid-American) have all watched the P5 cabal cut them off at the knees by eliminating many non-league games that would pay them big sums. But they’re still trying to cobble together schedules and play this fall.
Some of these schools are moving ahead despite government restrictions that currently don’t allow for football, or that prohibit interstate travel (it would be hard to play games with a two-week quarantine upon arrival in a certain state). They’re playing the long game, hoping things clear up at some point.
So here’s the thing: if the commitment to play is there, the oligarchs of college football need to articulate the motive. And one of the prime motives is this: they really need the money.
Say the quiet part out loud. The money matters. A lot.
That’s not necessarily something to be ashamed of. But saying so runs counter to the instincts of many college presidents, athletic directors and conference commissioners, who prefer to bloviate about high-minded ideals and pretend tens of millions of dollars in revenue are just an incidental byproduct of football.
What everyone involved in this enterprise needs to do is not just admit that the football money matters, but explain why it matters. I believe that a blast of honesty and transparency would be well received.
It matters because, without it, athletic directors are telling dozens of Olympic sport athletes that they no longer have a team. They’re telling coaches they no longer have jobs. They are laying off support staff. If football season doesn’t happen, the ramifications will be that severe—even at the big-budget schools.
We already saw Stanford, the most successful all-sports athletic department in America, eliminate 11 varsity programs. Many other schools operating on smaller budgets have also cut sports. Without the TV revenue that would come with football, this will be a recurring nightmare rolling across the country.
Now, is it true that athletic departments have shamelessly bloated themselves on obscene revenues and spent without restraint or regard for common sense? Absolutely. The schools that have doubled their athletic department staff and built every conceivable facility—waterfalls and miniature golf courses included—don’t engender great sympathy.
Trimming fat can absolutely be done, and should be done. The conspicuous consumption is obnoxious. Private jets are not a birthright, and an armada of analysts hired to break down third-down tendencies of every opponent are a disposable luxury. But this football-dependent economy is what college sports has created, and trying to tame that beast and turn it into a house pet is unrealistic.
If money didn’t matter— a lot —we wouldn’t have the current delineation between No Fall Football and Yes Let’s At Least Try Fall Football. The Ivy League, the Patriot League and other FCS-level conferences have all punted on the season, at least as a fall sport, because they don’t like the virus situation and don’t have a financial reason telling them otherwise. The big-money leagues are, for now, going ahead.
Will they eventually reach a point where outbreaks and optics force a halt? Maybe so. Maybe early, during preseason practice, or maybe later, once games begin. It could happen. The logistics remain daunting.
Major League Baseball, which is not being played in a bubble environment, has had some opening-week debacles. A college football program operating with an unpaid labor force would have a hard time powering through a Miami Marlins situation without shutting down the season.
To that point, something else college football needs to say outlet: what are the limits of an acceptable outbreak?
There has been a mountain of planning for how to test athletes for the COVID-19 virus, how to contact trace, how to quarantine, and how to safeguard. But nobody in any of the conferences has stepped up and said, “These are the thresholds that will signal a mandatory stoppage in practice or competition.” Not publicly.
Dr. Doug Aukerman, Oregon State athletic director for sports medicine, has been a great communicator on behalf of the Pac-12 when it comes to discussing playing sports during the coronavirus. He was on the Pac-12 Zoom call Friday for that very purpose. He said the league is “trying to come up with very specific criteria and benchmarks” that would halt a team’s season. “We want to have a decision tree made,” Aukerman said.
But nobody, anywhere, is talking specifics or articulating a league-wide threshold. Which indicates that they don’t want to be boxed into anything.
Maybe that’s smart, but it also feels a bit like leaving room to move the goalposts as needed. Already, we have seen some of that where college football is concerned. There was a time when a campus that wasn’t fully functioning would not be a campus that could play football—that time quickly and quietly passed.
For now, the swinging pendulum of college football has moved back toward the Play Ball side. The colleges are going to try. Let’s just be honest about the motivation.