I love college football. Although I didn’t grow up with the sport, I’ve been a fan nearly my entire adult life. It was at a college football game, surrounded by thousands of people at KSU Stadium, and cheering with a single voice, that I finally felt at home, like I had somehow been absorbed into an America that was otherwise hidden from my lonely immigrant self. College football helped me (in an oblique way) meet the person I later married, and all my child’s earliest sports memories revolve around college football games. The sport is far and way my small family’s most cherished fall tradition.
I say all this to dispel the notion that I’m rooting against college football. As much as anyone, I really want college football to happen this fall. I think being able to at least watch games on television would be a tiny but welcome sliver of normalcy for all of us. But I don’t think college football will be played this fall, and maybe not even in the spring.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 announced the postponement of all fall sports, including football, to the spring. The decision was made at least in part to “too much uncertainty, too much risk,” according to B1G commissioner Kevin Warren. Most Big Ten teams appeared resigned to this sad fate, but not Nebraska, where everyone even remotely associated with the program immediately lost their collective marbles. As much as I enjoy the huge heaps of Nebraska-centric schadenfreude I’ve experienced this week, this is a sad state of affairs for a once proud program.
For now, the other conferences are going to play. The Big 12 says it will have a fall season in 2020 and announced the conference games + 1 schedule earlier this week. But the conference may have merely kicked the can down the road. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby noted that it was “too early to cancel” but if the medical advice “flip(s) the switch,” all bets are off.
The SEC remains ready to go as long as the season is green-lit by the conference’s medical experts. Greg Sankey, the SEC commissioner, noted the conference now has enhanced protocols around player safety but also asked that the community at large do its part to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Elsewhere in the south, however, the tide may be turning against college football this fall. Like the SEC and Big 12, the ACC has reiterated its commitment to a 2020 season. But in the interim, there are already controversies around player safety in that conference. A player at Florida State has accused the school of lying about health and safety conditions relevant to COVID-19. On the same day, players at Syracuse began a boycott of team practices because the school only tests players every other week.
So let’s talk about testing. The NCAA’s guidelines require players to be tested once a week, 72 hours before a game. This is the floor, the minimum requirement, for testing and many schools are adopting more stringent protocols. But a three-day window is a significant gap for a sport where players suit up every Saturday.
Consider what happens if an asymptomatic player gets tested on Tuesday, practices with his teammates, and then receives a positive test on Friday? Do you quarantine the entire team? What about the game on Saturday? Is it cancelled? Postponed? These are all questions I hope the Big 12, SEC, and ACC will be able to answer.
(Aside: One of our commenters, icfkaa, offered an explanation of tail risk analysis and how it might apply to college football. I highly recommend reading both the comment and the links therein).
Then there’s the problem of testing shortages. When it announced the cancellation of its fall season, the Pac-12 issued a set of medical guidelines for a safe return to sports. Among the concerns listed in this report is that testing capacity—both availability and turnaround time—might not be able to keep up with demand, especially as some places within the Pac-12 footprint are struggling to keep coronavirus outbreaks contained.
The Big 12 is planning to test players three times a week to ensure players’ health and safety. This is a laudable goal, but is it the right thing to do? I have spent the last few days wondering (sometimes out loud) about whether college football is so necessary to our lives that we would hoard testing supplies to ensure player safety while our communities go without. Is this ethical? Is this even necessary?
Testing delays are not a trivial problem. We are about to run into a nationwide shortage of reagents and other testing supplies. Meanwhile, many thousands are simply choosing not to get tested. In Texas, home to four Big 12 schools and one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 surges, test positivity is hovering around 16%, a sign of not enough testing despite availability of tests. Nobody is sure why people are forgoing testing, but inconsistent messaging, stories of long lines and shortages, and even coronavirus ennui, are all contributing factors.
So football still hangs in the balance, and there’s more at play here than just games in a sport we all love. We cannot really afford to keep flying by the seat of our pants while kicking the can down the road, although—as Bowlsby noted—it is “delusional” to look too far ahead. I cannot help but agree with Chris Klieman on this score: “I hope they don’t totally lose the season....what is the plan?”
With the editorializing out of the way, let’s pretend college football is really happening:
— Kansas State football has started fall camp. The players have adhered to strict social distancing protocols and mask wearing so far, and they’re all eager to play this season, especially the seniors.
— Skylar Thompson has been named to the watch list for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, the first Wildcat to be a candidate twice. Collin Klein won the award in 2012 and Michael Bishop and Chad May were both finalists. Thompson is also a candidate for the Maxwell and Manning awards, as well as the Wuerffel Trophy.
— K-State Athletics could experience some financial pain this fall, as revenues dip and medical costs rise. Limited fan capacity at games this fall will also have an impact.
Have a great weekend, all! Stay safe, healthy, and happy.