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Minnesota Football: Grappling with the uncertainty of a college football season with COVID-19

Questions abound ahead of a return to the gridiron in the fall

Penn State v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Will there be college football in the fall?

I’ve avoided trying to answer that question for months now, and I’m now more confident than ever that the answer is: I don’t know. No one does.

To begin with, the COVID-19 pandemic that has gripped the globe for months now is a difficult topic to broach in large part because it has become so politicized. It’s unfortunate because you would hope that we’d be at our best when the circumstances are the worst, united in our goal to protect each other. But the reality is that not everyone is on the same page in terms of how to contain the spread of COVID-19, which makes it difficult to establish any sort of consistency across collegiate athletics programs spanning 50 states.

As states around the country have begun to “reopen,” athletic departments have started to follow suit, with Minnesota among the programs this week bringing student-athletes back to campus, albeit with health and safety guidelines in place. So there is cautious optimism at the moment that the college football season can take place as scheduled.

For me, there are three critical factors that will impact the 2020 season.

Preserving the health and well-being of the student-athletes

First and foremost, you have to be able to protect your players. The reality is that no program is going to be able to completely shield their players from being exposed to COVID-19, and for some even that is reason enough to scrap the season altogether. The University of Minnesota, among others, has made it voluntary for students to return to campus and have even made it clear that student-athletes who opt not to return will not see their scholarship status effected.

There is also the question of whether the university is legally liable if a student or student-athlete contracts COVID-19. Ohio State is having players or their parents sign a waiver acknowledging the potential risks ahead of summer workouts.

And while schools like Minnesota have laid out their protocol for when a student-athlete tests positive for COVID-19, the ramifications of even one player testing positive could be widespread, especially if it happened during the season. You would presumably need to trace that player’s contacts and test or even quarantine anyone else who would have been at risk of being exposed.

I think most would agree that keeping everyone home would perhaps be the simplest and most effective solution, but if the last month or so is any indication, you can only ask people to stay inside for so long before they grow restless. So as people begin to try and return to some sense of normalcy, the question becomes: What level of risk is acceptable? And who gets to decide that?

Maintaining a level playing field across all programs

In the age of COVID-19, a competitive advantage could be something as simple as one program being able to bring their student-athletes to campus a week or two before another. At what point does the disparity become significant enough to warrant concerns about a level playing field?

Summer workouts will be an interesting testing ground for this, as each program seems to be marching to their own beat. The real tough decisions will come if and when teams are not able to start fall preseason practice period on time. How can you expect a team with a truncated training camp to take the field against an opponent who has had the benefit of a full slate of preseason practices? That does not seem like a fair or reasonable expectation.

I touched on the residual effects that could result in even a single player testing positive, but imagine a starter or multiple starters testing positive one week during the season. Suddenly, a team is missing key players for at least two weeks, if not longer. Do we treat them like injuries and simply accept it as part of the game? Depending on the spread out of the outbreak, are they even able to field a team, let alone a competitive one?

For as much as the NCAA pretends to care cares about ensuring “fairness” across the board by regulating and restricting recruiting and practices, this is a whole new can of worms.

Weighing the risks of having fans in attendance

It is no secret that a number of athletic departments around the country rely on the revenue from their football programs to survive, but where is that revenue going to come from if you’re not able to sell tickets? Do you even allow fans to attend games at all? If you allow fans to attend, how many are allowed admission? Who specifically gets those tickets? And do you reorganize the seating chart to abide by social distancing guidelines?

Much like the student-athletes being invited back to campus on a voluntary basis, I’m sure ticket buyers will be asked to accept responsibility for the inherent risks of attending a game, but there are also those who will question if it is morally responsible to ask that of them.

And to be clear, I don’t pretend to know the answer to any of these questions. I think they are worth discussing — and I expect to see a variety of opinions in response to them. And as the decisions are being made in regard to the upcoming(?) season, I’m certainly not envious of the people who have the tall task of making them.


Will there be college football in the fall?

This poll is closed

  • 21%
    Yes, the season will take place as scheduled
    (81 votes)
  • 41%
    Yes, but there will be disruptions
    (156 votes)
  • 24%
    No, the season will be cancelled or postponed
    (93 votes)
  • 13%
    I don’t know
    (50 votes)
380 votes total Vote Now