Bohls: Football now has a return date, but is it too soon, too risky?

Football is back.

Well, at least a tiny semblance of it. A glimmer, perhaps.

If the SEC says so, it has to be true, right? 

And if football is back, could normalcy be far behind? 

Not necessarily. And not if the return is force-fed before everyone is adequately prepared to deal with the consequences. The first hurdle may have been jumped, but how many remain?

The Big 12 has announced that it’s OK for football players to start coming back to campus for offseason workouts in early June. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

This past week, the NCAA gave its blessing to a return of football players — as well as basketball players — to campus for voluntary workouts starting on June 1. Then the Big 12 and SEC fell in line and announced their athletes could come back to college in early June and start limited conditioning and workouts of some form. The remaining fall sport athletes in the Big 12 can return July 1 with athletes in winter and spring sports having a July 15 target date, under the phase-in action.

But is it too soon?

Sure seems that way because of so many unanswered questions, grave risks and byzantine logistics that would bring an MIT graduate to his knees. Are there enough tests? Will fans have to wear masks to stadiums? If stadiums are a quarter full, who gets tickets?

Lincoln Riley, Oklahoma’s football coach, went so far as to label the mere idea of allowing players back this quickly as “ridiculous.” I agree with him and hope he stays true to that conviction.

Texas fans walk down Bevo Boulevard before the 2018 home game against Tulsa. Every UT home game draws around 100,000 fans that pack into the stadium, plus even more that are outside Royal-Memorial Stadium before, during and after the game. (Ricardo B. Brazziell/American-Statesman)

Pro sports still remain on the sidelines and just barely are beginning to tiptoe into a return although nothing yet is certain. Major league baseball hasn’t ironed out an agreement for half a season. The NBA is starting to open its facilities, and the NFL is anxious to follow suit.

And they are all paid to play. College athletes, at least in theory, are not.

The alarms are everywhere to proceed slowly. The risk is too great otherwise.

Mark Escott, the Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority, said Wednesday he doesn’t see a “reasonable” way to host large public gatherings with more than 2,500 attendees at any point this year. That didn’t sound promising.

Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte hasn’t commented on Escott’s opinion but favors the return of football within the guidelines of proper protocol.

“We remain optimistic and are continuing to plan for football this season, and this is another positive step towards preparing for that,” Del Conte said. “We were able to get some of our football coaches and staff in the offices this week, and all went well with the health and safety measures we put into place for that. We’ve also been working on plans, procedures and health and safety measures in order to get student-athletes on campus.”

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby says it’s not out of the realm of possibility that one or more positive coronavirus tests on players during the week would lead to that Saturday’s game being called off. (LM Otero/The Associated Press)

The athletes understandably are itching to return.

In a survey by The Athletic of 45 players from the Power Five and Group of Five conferences and the FCS regarding the upcoming football season, 80% of those polled said they want to return to campus for the fall semester, even if the non-student-athletes are not allowed to do the same.

Not a single player said he would be extremely uncomfortable returning. Only three said they’d be slightly uncomfortable and 24 said they’d prefer to delay the start of the season if fans weren’t allowed inside stadiums. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh told ESPN he’d rather the season begin in empty stadiums than not begin at all, a stance I totally endorse.

“You have to take it step by step,” Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork told me. “There isn’t a manual or a plan. We’re talking to a lot of pandemic experts, who say here’s how to deal with competition and games and continue to work.”

The return of sports is crucial on so many levels, primarily among them the entertainment and economic standpoint. 

But as much as we value and even prioritize sports and as many jobs from coaches to support staffers to trainers to nutritionists to tutors to publicists to sportswriters and broadcasters that have been adversely affected, the bottom line should always be the same.

Lives over livelihood.

That’s never an easy assessment, but our leaders must always put that at the forefront of their thinking as we move forward ever so gently from this crisis.

This remains a complicated situation in which college administrators and conference commissioners wrestle with the ever-changing dynamics of the coronavirus pandemic that has cost more than 96,000 American lives and infected more than 1.64 million.

There’s little doubt that football, by definition, is one of the least socially distant-friendly sports there is. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said to expect “disruptions” in football season. He said it’s not unlikely that one team’s players could learn of positive tests for the coronavirus on a Tuesday and then games on Saturday might have to be postponed or canceled. What if they test positive in June? What of the second wave?

We don’t dare think about angry fans arguing about mundane — yes, relatively speaking — topics like level playing fields and championship criteria and an equal number of games. I’d suggest the nation should welcome back football in any form and be content with the entertainment aspect of the games we so fervently follow.  

The need to bring back football remains high if stretched-to-the-max athletic departments are to survive. An ESPN report estimated the cancellation of college football could cost as much as $4 billion. I don’t have to tell you that Olympic and non-revenue sports will be among the leading casualties if football doesn’t come back this year. At least 20 FBS schools have already cut some of their sports, but we’ve yet to see the attrition rate of the more prominent Power Five universities.

And as Bjork told me, if football isn’t ready to come back in the fall, neither is men’s basketball, which is the NCAA’s biggest cash cow and represents the main revenue that keeps its doors open. And those are huge considerations.

But even though college sports is big business, it remains entertainment at its core. But do we value that over everything else?