The optimism of football fans who celebrated the long-awaited release of the NFL’s 2020 schedule last Thursday was tempered by the sobering fact that the college season may not be held.
And you thought the coronavirus was going to let you off easy?
Everyone, from NCAA president Mark Emmert to university presidents, to conference commissioners and football coaches acknowledge it’s going to be difficult to play this fall. Unlike the NFL, which is its own company and can control its employees and member organizations, Division I college football is a patchwork of 130 public and private universities. Each of those 130 schools runs things differently and are located in different states, which makes them subject to different regulations from state government and local health officials.
Some schools have elected to keep their campus closed to students. Others are going to have classes online. There’s no uniform policy.
Look no further than North Carolina, where in a 12-mile radius, three schools — North Carolina, Duke and North Carolina State — have different policies. Duke is a private university and make its own decisions. The Tar Heels (UNC) and the Wolfpack (NC State) are public institutions and answer to a separate governing body.
What if North Carolina opts to keep its campus closed while Duke says it will open? The ACC, which all three schools are members of, would stop the universities that are not holding on-campus classes from competing. You can’t close the campus to the student body while allowing 85 or 90 football players to be allowed on the site to practice and play. It’s impractical.
In California, it’s the same thing. The Pac-12 has two public universities — UCLA and Cal — and two private schools — USC and Stanford. What if USC and Stanford open their campuses but UCLA and Cal don’t? In the Mountain West, there are three California schools — Fresno State, San Diego State and San Jose State — all of which are part of the same education system. Tuesday, that system announced it planned to keep the campuses closed this fall. How can the Mountain West function as a football league?
And what about independents such as Notre Dame and BYU? What if they opt to play but the majority of their opponents decide they’re not competing? You can’t play a two- or three-game schedule.
For university presidents, football isn’t necessarily at the top of their lists. I was watching an interview the other day with Robert Robbins, the president of the University of Arizona. He was asked about the Pac-12. He said his primary concern is the health and welfare of the 45,000 students and 15,000 employees at his university. He’s also worried about the economic impact on the city of Tucson. And like so many companies and businesses, colleges are trying to strike a balance between life and livelihood.
Reopen and let the students and professors back on campus and you run the risk of COVID-19 overrunning your community. Stay closed and you could find yourself out of business.
Playing football is part of the equation. It would help financially and boost morale for students, faculty, alumni and others. But it’s not the determining factor. Even at places like Alabama and Clemson, caution is being exercised in trying to make a decision.
What would no college football mean for sportsbooks across America? It would obviously be a huge hit to the bottom line. Even if the NFL starts on time Sept. 10, even if we get the baseball season going, not having college football will negatively impact the books.
And it wouldn’t impact just Saturdays. Games are played throughout the week and television is a big partner. It would mean alternative programming for the game’s TV partners as well as the conference’s own networks.
The financial ramifications are immense. But like everything else society in general is dealing with, the fear of the unknown dominates the conversation.
Will the first wave of coronavirus still be lurking come fall? Will a second wave that medical experts are predicting overrun the country and force college football to hit the pause button in the middle of the season, assuming it was even able to begin play? Will some states be unable to reopen the campuses? Maybe Wyoming can have a return to normal come August, but it’s hard to see Rutgers being able to hold classes in New Jersey anytime soon.
The NCAA and college football want a level playing field in order to have a season. But the way things are looking, I’m not sure that can be achieved. We may have to settle for the NFL to get our football fix. And let’s hope we can have that.