What happens when you are bound by 150 years of tradition, yet face a new challenge that has no known answers? What happens when your structure prevents the very solution you're seeking? These are the philosophical questions that face college football in attempting to return during the COVID-19 pandemic. Every foundational pillar is an obstacle in this puzzle. Every potential path is blocked by the sport's own making.
"I don't see a path for college football," Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports told me. He has covered the sport for 20 years and is one of its most respected voices after stints with Sports Illustrated and the New York Times as well. “We still haven’t practiced yet,” Thamel said. “Nobody knows how this virus is going to react if a player practices. How many people on the team would get it? Ultimately, there’s 13,000 18-to-22-year-olds in FBS football, and without a bubble to protect them, if you throw them in [the] petri dish of a college campus – college dorms are basically just cruise ships that don’t move. There’s just no way to keep the virus away. Things are so dim right now.”
Yes, let's start with those dorm rooms and that campus. These are inherently part of the college football equation. The players that carry one of our nation's most popular endeavors are students. The definition of student-athlete has been questioned for years. The numerical percentage of student vs. athlete is also a fundamental debate. Because of that pesky "student" thing, however, manipulating the labor force is mind-crushingly complex. The NFL is negotiating with a union president and team representatives to find a compromise. The NFLPA exists to form a protection against employer malpractice. In an unprecedented health crisis, that protection is more important than ever. Yet, college players don't have one. So pushing unpaid labor around a chessboard during a pandemic that has claimed 138,000 Americans is not only awful optics, but also an enormous legal liability.
Being part of an academic institution means the financials are also a byzantine web of tentacles. College football is the single most important revenue generator at many schools. It is the most dependable spigot of cash, far more reliable than donations or state funds. Television contracts with major networks guarantee tens of millions of dollars annually to Power 5 schools, and that money is routed to many other destinations across campus.
“It is the elephant in the room: you cannot survive without it,” CBS Sports college football analyst Rick Neuheisel told me. “It provides all the bells and whistles for every sport on campus... If you’re not able to have football, then you’re going to just start whacking sports." Stanford has already done this, one of the most prestigious institutions in the country. " [If] the money spigot that is turned on to support everything in terms of the athletic department and all the sports involved [gets] shut off, you’re relying solely on donations. Donations are also waning because of what the likely impacts on the economy are going to be. So this is dire if we don’t get football played.”
That dire description is not hyperbole. It's the massive guillotine hanging over everyone's head. Neuheisel was the head coach of three different Power 5 programs. He knows how vital football is to the survival of colleges as we know it. If the Giants don't play a game this season, the WNBA's Liberty don't get shafted. If the Patriots can't get on the field, Mass General Hospital doesn't lose funding. But if the Crimson Tide can't suit up, Alabama's olympic sports and its science department are in a crisis.
“This is going to have a trickle-down effect on higher education in general,” said Neuheisel. “Right now, we’re having all these universities ask mom and dad across the country to keep footing the bill for college for their sons and daughters at full price, even though the education is going to be online. I think there’s going to be some resistance for that."
College football is not known for its creative problem solving and modern viewpoints. The power brokers once upon a time had no national championship game because the bowl committees exerted so much control. There was decades of resistance to a playoff because the old boys' network didn't want to upset the apple cart. The SEC didn't welcome its first black head coach until Sylvester Croom in 2003. That was 14 years after Art Shell became the first black NFL head coach (which was shockingly late as well). Michigan's helmets. Notre Dame Stadium. USC's fight song. The way things have been are often the way things stay in college football.
That dedication to tradition is standing in the way of a solution right now. Punting on a fall schedule and trying to play a spring season, even a shortened one, is a non-starter for some. Listening to Urban Meyer and Matt Leinart quickly dismiss the notion sounded like someone had suggested playing on the surface of Mercury. Yes, college football is about fall and foliage and the weather getting cooler. But junior colleges have already implemented a plan to play their football season this spring. They know fighting the virus now is a losing battle.
“I think playing the games without fans right now is something they’re trying to figure out a path to,” Thamel says. “Now if it’s the spring and Jonas Salk 2.0 shows up and gives us the vaccine that allows everyone to get their lives back, certainly some sort of fan option could happen. But to me, in the fall, the fan ship has sailed in a lot of ways.”
The names that harken back to the good ol' days will always dot the sport. But do they have a new vision for how to solve this riddle? “[Tennessee athletic director] Phillip Fulmer said two weeks ago they’re going to have Neyland Stadium full,” Thamel says. “There are still some folks who are stuck in their own world.”
Athletic directors, presidents, and conference commissioners should be looking at everything. There is a legitimate concern of overtaxing players in the spring with a fall season in 2021. What about a split season with four games in the fall (December) and four games in the spring (March)? What about asking medical and physiology experts what the safest amount of snaps to play for a college-aged athlete, and building protocol around that? How about a 6-game spring season and 10-game fall '21 season? That's only one more contest than LSU and Clemson played last year. What about expanding rosters with another 20 walk-ons (since scholarship money is limited right now) and lessening snaps played by each athlete? What about playing games during winter break when students aren't on campus? What about conference bubbles and players only attend virtual classes? There are myriad models that should be studied in case football simply can't be played on campus this fall.
But are the college football leaders turning over every rock? Or are they beholden to the way it's always been, then caught without any answers as time runs out? Hope is not a plan, and it seems like that's the only thing college football's decision-makers have been banking on. Thamel isn't seeing that type of forward thinking. "Until there’s a bubble option or some sort of medical advancement, I don’t see a path for college football.”