Hines: If we’re planning for fall football, then we also must plan for disruptions

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Iowa State football coach Matt Campbell has high hopes for Brock Purdy, Breece Hall and Charlie Kolar

Des Moines Register

It seems we’re on a path toward getting college football this fall. 

I don’t say that with any special insight or insider information that I haven’t written or that we all haven’t read as we all try to divine what the sports world might look like during a pandemic. The time and effort going into getting the general student population to campus and getting football on the field is immense.

That means we will have to brace for serious disruptions.

The financial ramifications are potentially cataclysmic if classrooms and Saturday TV windows sit empty this fall.

So the momentum seems to be moving in a direction that will attempt to minimize risk with the knowledge it can’t be eliminated. It seems overwhelmingly likely that COVID-19 will continue to be a threat through the fall and winter, but as states all over the country ease social distancing restrictions, it appears our society will try to deal with that viral menace while ramping up economic and social activity.

We’ve seen decision-makers at universities and in athletic departments work overtime to develop solutions to mitigate risk. I have little doubt that there will be creative workarounds that will lower the danger for students and student-athletes — as well as faculty and employees — of getting sick.

My question, though: What happens when those measures fail?

Even in the most aggressive mitigation scenarios, we’re still talking about thousands of people descending on campuses from all over the world. We’re talking about close contact in school and in athletics. To focus on football, the economic engine of college sports, there are more than 100 Division I programs with something like 100 players apiece. That’s more than 10,000 players, with thousands more in coaches and support staff. 

That’s a lot of people traveling through communities and across the country while congregating together.

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Maybe there will be medical breakthroughs that change the calculus. But regardless, schools, conferences and perhaps the sport at large need an articulated plan for what happens should a player or staffer test positive.

In the Korean Baseball Organization, one of the few sports leagues currently operating, a positive test means the league shuts down for three weeks.

Would college football be able to adopt such a practice?

If there are shutdowns, could colleges forfeit the gate receipts (assuming some fans are in attendance), and how would TV partners react to suddenly canceled programming? Would programs just trudge through, isolating those who test positive and keep playing, risking further outbreak among their team and whoever they play?

Although it appears the young and healthy are able to withstand the virus at a high rate, there are vulnerable people in football programs. There are players with asthma and diabetes. There are cancer survivors. There are older coaches. There are thousands of people with thousands of individual risk factors. Blocking and tackling doesn’t leave a lot of room for social distancing.

It’s not as though football programs live in a bubble, either. They’ll be interacting with others in their schools and communities.

Football can be a dangerous game, but COVID-19 presents a different kind of peril. If schools are going to press forward with the season, having plans to keep people healthy isn’t enough. There has to be a protocol for if they’re not. Which means the sport needs to be braced for a season of potentially canceled games and major disruptions.

Maybe that means no true conference champions. Maybe that means no College Football Playoff.

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In uncertain times, you have to contend with the precariousness of plans. 

“You’ve got to go into it with your eyes wide open,” ISU athletic director Jamie Pollard told me last week. “I don’t think any coach would love to hear that, but we’re going to have that cloud hanging over whatever we do if we start in the fall.

“There’s a pathway forward. It’s just you’ve got to have all these protocols in place, or what happens when you do have somebody that tests positive?”

We all want to see football come back. I think, though, we all need to be prepared to see it stop as well.

Source: Des Moines Register