Fall is quickly approaching, and I didn’t even realize it. That’s been one of the great mindfucks of this brutal year. It is simultaneously rushing past while feeling stagnant. No matter how we perceive it, time continues to march. August is almost here. That should mean that football is almost here. And yet.
A lifetime ago in March, as the NCAA was canceling multiple multimillion-dollar basketball tournaments, August seemed a long way away. We would get this whole mess figured out by then, right?
Wrong. America never truly kicked that first wave of COVID-19 in the spring, surfing into the summer on higher and higher case numbers. With another school year on the horizon, there is great debate as to if students of any age should physically attend schools over the next few months. This complete fiasco has the potential to again disrupt the largest funnel of the financial pipeline of universities across the nation, their tentpole athletics.
To any observer of the country over the past few weeks, playing a normal college football schedule, complete with travel and fans should seem like a complete fantasy. Yet, most conferences (Ivy League not included) have resisted delaying or canceling their football seasons. Some conferences like the Big Ten, have decided to cancel all non-conference games, restricting travel and providing more time between games for medical staff to monitor rosters and coaching staff. But we’re just a couple of weeks away from August 7th, the date where training camps are supposed to begin and, to be frank, the lack of cohesive planning from the NCAA is fucking bananas.
So what to do? Have each conference figure it out on their own? Have each team play a different number of games on different timelines as they try to dodge the virus? It would all be laughable if it wasn’t so serious. There’s an obvious answer here, one that the short-sighted money grubs that run the NCAA and “Power Five” fail to see due to their fear of short-term losses.
Move the season to next spring, ya morons.
It might not sit well with the purists and with the Scrooge McDuck types who count the pennies, but moving college football to the spring right now is the only way to protect players, coaches, staff, and their families in contact with them all. It is also the only way to keep hopes alive for fans to attend games safely. Moving the entire season for potentially a hundred plus teams is a daunting task, but it is possible.
So how would the NCAA complete such a formidable task? In my mind, there are four hurdles to overcome in order to play any football in the time of COVID-19:
General Safety Assurance
Testing & Quarantine Measures
Each of these items represents a monumental task for the NCAA and each athletic conference. There is no chance the NCAA or the individual athletic conferences can clear all these hurdles in a responsible way by August 7th. It took over 100 years for them to come up with a valid playoff format, for Christ's sake. But if some cooperation and flexibility can be shown (something I am not optimistic about) a safe season can be played in the spring. Here’s how to go about it.
Obviously, the most important thing in regards to bringing college football back is the safety of everyone participating, from players and staff to the hypothetical fans in the stands. If students are allowed on campus for the second semester of the year, and that is still a big if, then we can talk about going through with a spring season. There is no reason to bring kids on campus when it is not safe for others to be there.
Any students or coaches that do not feel safe and choose to not participate in the season will not be punished. Eligibility will remain unchanged for players, their scholarships will not be taken away. Coaches and trainers' contracts will be honored.
Along those lines, colleges would need to make sure things are safe for the remaining coaches, the trainers, the custodians who will be cleaning up locker rooms and sidelines, the security guards working games and actual fans who might be at the games as well as the numerous service staff teams that would be on hand if they were present. All of this is a no go if even one of these groups is not safe. The best way to judge how ready we are for the spring season will be testing.
From the first time they step into the building to the end of their last game, every player (practice squads included), coach, or staff member who interacts with players or coaches will need to be tested daily. When looking across all the possible programs playing, that is a staggering number of tests needed. I did some rough napkin math, and if training camp started New Years' day and lasted until the end of April, you would need 12,600 tests… for the rostered players alone...for a single team. Now, one might argue (that one would be me) that those tests should be saved for communities that will likely still be struggling with the virus next year. But if we are going to have college football, these tests will be necessary for safe play.
With hundreds of thousands of tests likely to be taken over the course of the season, some are bound to come back as positive for COVID-19. What are teams to do? Simply quarantine and test again. If anyone comes back with a positive test, be it a player, coach, or support staff member, they must be isolated and tested again. Then every person that person came into contact between the initial test and their isolation must be tested again. Contact tracing will be critical in making sure that anyone truly positive (fails multiple tests) is separated as quickly as possible from the rest of the people at risk.
We all know kids will be kids, and that there is always the temptation to do stupid things. I was that kid for much longer than my (short) college career. Telegraphing the seriousness of following social distancing rules at all times during the season will be paramount. That goes for the coaching staff and the rest of the adults as well. Get your pizzas delivered during the season, folks. The best way to drive home the importance of staying apart from the world is to make the penalty of teams testing positive very severe. Let’s break down the punishments in stages.
Since the recommended quarantine length for positive cases is 14 days, we will use that as our punishment yardstick for the initial response to a positive test. Starting from fourteen days out from the beginning of the season, any team with multiple (seriously, 2+) confirmed (remember at least two positive tests) cases of COVID-19 will forfeit the next two weeks’ worth of games from the nearest Saturday. So let's say cases are confirmed on a Wednesday. That forfeiture starts on the upcoming Saturday. No appeal, no exceptions. Teams are hit with automatic losses as soon as a case is confirmed. If a bye falls into either of the next two weekends, then that team lucked out.
There will be more dire penalties for teams with many positives. If a team has more than five positive tests in a week, their next three games, regardless of bye weeks, will be automatically forfeited.
And if a team throughout the course of a season accumulates more than ten confirmed positive tests, the rest of the season is forfeited. It doesn’t matter if this is in week one or week nine, you’re all free to go after your quarantine. No more football for you.
If that sounds harsh to you, try breathing on a respirator.
The harshness of my testing plan is predicated on keeping students and staff safe on campus. Hopefully, the fear of blowing up an entire season will compel teams to stay as safe as possible. In order to do that, they will essentially have to be quarantined for the entire 2nd semester of school.
Campus housing entirely dedicated to athletics would make the most sense. Classes will have to be entirely online. Coaches will have to move out of their homes into accommodations either on campus or in a nearby hotel. Their families will not be allowed to visit until the season is over. This will be a monumental task. People have trouble wearing masks when walking around my neighborhood, I can't imagine a college campus. These precautions will go far above that. Coaching staffs love to tout mental toughness. Their teams will need some to successfully make it through a season.
If colleges have created a safe environment for the people willing to participate and have proven to be able to effectively support and test them, then the next step is figuring out the logistics of the season. First off, when do teams even start playing?
There should be at least two “Failsafe” dates which can be used as the target for opening day. The 2020 season is supposed to kick off in earnest on September 3rd. Considering that in a perfect world teams are giving themselves a full month of camp before the season begins, we should reflect that in our scheduling. For no reason beyond convenience, let's put the earliest date to play week 1 on March 13th. This gives programs some leeway as to bringing kids back onto campus during the first two months of the year, monitoring virus levels during this time as a school, and testing their safety measures.
It is likely however that this will prove to be too rushed. Things will go wrong, numbers will flex and just as we’ve seen in the pros, programs will have to either drop out or disband activity as players and staff continue to test positive. That’s why a backup date is needed. Let’s make it on April 17th. If this proves to not be feasible, then the season will be scrapped on a conference-by-conference level.
Why conference-by-conference? Because the NCAA doesn’t seem to be up for the task to properly oversee each conference, and if there is going to be any football, it will (or should) be within conference only. Although limiting play to within a conference doesn’t help all teams, (West Virginia, this is why you shouldn’t play in the Big 12) It does make it easier to keep tabs on the regional levels of COVID-19 and would help mitigate the risk of the nightmare scenario, a full-blown outbreak between two teams. Keeping travel to a minimum is such an important part of bringing football back that I would extend limitations to the postseason as well.
There would not be 40-plus bowl games this season. In fact, there will not be any bowl games this season. The best team in the nation would be decided the old-fashioned way, with the AP & Coaches Polls. Yeah, I hate them too (but thanks for my 1990 Georgia Tech Championship!).
Abandoning the playoff after yearning for it for so long seems wrong, but like a lot of things when it comes to this virus, you are just going to have to get over it. As for conference championships, that is a tougher issue. I personally don’t think they should be held, but on a purely competitive level, this would cause even more chaos while trying to decide the final polls. Having Co-Champions should be good enough, but again, if conferences could prove they could play one more game safely, then, by all means, crown a conference champion. Best record hosts.
We’ve built in two dates for launching our leagues, we’ve agreed to no bowls and no playoff games. Next up is deciding what the season should look like week by week.
A nine or ten-game season should be able to be completed within three months. This would end our season in June at the latest, which isn’t terrible considering that the NCAA Baseball and Softball seasons share a similar end date. It might get a little hot for our southern friends but so are the September games they play each year. Expanding the time between games would also give players more rest, which is important as they’ll have two seasons in one calendar year. More importantly, it also gives medical teams across the nation extra time for confirming testing results and containing possible outbreaks. If the initial start date of the season (Mid March) turns out to be feasible, that gives teams even more opportunity to add bye weeks to their schedules.
So… that seems like a lot.
I’m sure I missed something huge in the thought experiment. I didn’t even touch on the possibility of fans. How many should be allowed? Should they be tested? Should their temperatures be taken? Should tickets be limited to raffles entered only by people who have been recently tested? Kicking off a spring season would be one of the most complicated tasks ever taken on by the NCAA
And this is all assuming that football during COVID-19 is possible. This plan also does not take into consideration all the other sports that will likely be postponed and rescheduled into the spring, taking even more resources away from colleges. And what would the NCAA do with March Madness taking place during the beginning of the football season? Would they even allow that to happen?
There are so many unknowns that if I were king, I would just flat out cancel the season this year. That isn’t likely to happen. If the meat grinder that is the NCAA is adamant about playing college football this year, I truly hope they come to their senses and at least postpone the season until 2021. If even one player, parent, staff member or janitor gets hospitalized, or god forbid dies, due to this season being rushed back, it will be a completely preventable disaster. Football, and the NCAA for that matter, can take so much away from the people who love it. Their lives shouldn’t be put at risk to be taken away either.