Creativity, innovation and safety must fuel college football as it faces a difficult effort to play in 2020


Sweaty shorts and T-shirts never smelled so good.

When the NCAA Council voted Wednesday to allow college athletes to return to campus for voluntary workouts as soon as June 1, it was symbolic at first.

Two months-plus of Zoom meetings, social distancing and both athletic and scholastic uncertainty have given way to optimism. With teammates suddenly able to begin talking shit again between bench presses, there is hope that the season might be just around the corner.

Baby steps, though. First up, actual human interaction in practice facilities all over the country. Just not too close, of course.

Are you ready for some … unorganized team activities?!

Now, it’s up to the adults not to screw it up. Not for the millions they make. It’s up to the college presidents, athletic directors, coaches and medical professionals to get this right. This is their moment, and all eyes are on them.

“Even without the pandemic, we’re about to enter the most revolutionary period in college athletics,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “College athletics is going to come out of this looking very differently. I think that’s kind of exciting.”

How different was summed up by West Virginia president Gordon Gee this week. With no coronavirus vaccine on the horizon and rapid testing still not completely widespread, he said, “we’re going to have to learn to dance with it.”

In other words, get ready to practice football — if not play it just yet — between coronavirus raindrops.

“We’ll have to learn how to co-exist with the virus,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “It’s going to be around like the chicken pox, like HIV. There are psychological aspects of it. Our society is not very confident right now. You wonder if people will be able to sit next to each other cheek by jowl [in a stadium] with people they don’t know.”

Is that the safest backdrop for an unpaid labor force that obviously wants to play but is relying on the judgment of others to protect them?

“People are losing their lives,” Ohio State AD Gene Smith said. “That’s just unsettling. For us to not to be touched by that … We gotta be as thoughtful about the human part of this thing.”

Exciting, thoughtful, revolutionary, all those things. With players headed back to workouts, it’s OK to be a little bit hyped.

Now, here’s how the future of football might look. A lot of it is going to be unfamiliar.

It’s not (necessarily) about winning: “This is not about prepping your team to be the best they possibly can [be],” Arizona head trainer Randy Cohen said. “This is about putting a product on the field that has a possibility to play all season.”

Example: The starting offensive line may practice for one hour with the second team practicing the next. It’s possible the two units don’t even interact during a given week.

“If, on Thursday before the game, your first-string offensive line guy pops up positive … you think, ‘I may have to quarantine my first-team offensive line,'” said Cohen, who is involved with the Pac-12 and NCAA on return-to-play guidelines.  

So, the entire second-team offensive line plays. Not ideal but, remember, none of this is necessarily about competitive advantage. It’s about player safety.

Masks on the field: Who will be wearing them? Who has to wear them? Like everything, it’s a point of contention. Coaches would definitely have to be masked up, Cohen said, preferably staying 10- to 15-feet away from players at all times. Players would have to wear masks during practice and games to slow the spread as well, in his eyes.

“If a player says, ‘It’s hard for me to breath,’ OK, then, we substitute you more,” Cohen explained.

That didn’t go over well when the concept was presented to Smith.

“That’s unrealistic,” Smith said. “If somebody tells us that has to happen, in my view, we won’t be playing.”

None of this is to mention the sharing of equipment and medical devices — such as oxygen masks, towels and water bottles on the sidelines, plus training tables and other work out equipment in the facilities.

Coaches’ roles will change: Due to their age, some coaches will be in a high-risk group. There’s a way to mitigate that risk. Think of Bear Bryant and his famous tower at practice. That might become the norm, at least during practice. Remember, the best way to defeat any contagious disease is for people not to assemble in large groups. That’s almost impossible when it comes to football, and it’s where college football’s “dance” with the coronavirus begins.

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If there is no vaccine for the foreseeable future, “[coaches] may do Zoom meetings the whole season,” explained one medical professional. “If I could create [the process], I’d say you never have a team meeting or a position meeting in a classroom all season long. “Hell, you want to be creative? You do a position meeting on your Jumbotron and you have all the players sit in the stands.”

Will fans be able to interact with players? Fat chance. This might be the end of players going into — or anywhere near — the stands, fans lining up for autographs or any other interaction. At least temporarily but perhaps even longer-term.

Reaction to positive tests: It will happen. You can’t gather 13,000 FBS players plus coaches and staff and expect 100 percent safety. Imagine teams exchanging lineup cards before a game listing which players have tested positive and are not eligible to play.

That invites all kinds of potential subterfuge. Heck, Jim Harbaugh won’t even release his two-deep depth chart. But remember bullet point No. 1: It’s not necessarily about winning — or at least it shouldn’t be. It’s about the greater good — competing while healthy.

The whole return-to-play concept is based on reliable, quick-turnaround tests in bulk so that players can be tested several times a week. NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline said recently that tests have become more widely available. Bowlsby was told by the White House coronavirus task force that reliable testing “will double every month from here on out. Whether that is a goal or a reality remains to be seen.”

So college football is betting on the future while players return to campus. Whether that’s wise remains to be seen, but it’s at least a gamble.

Hainline sounded an alarm last week when he summarized: “If a player tests positive right now, as we’re here, that player is going to have to be quarantined for 14 days, and then you’re going to have to look at all the close contacts. … If the decision is that all the close contacts are quarantined for 14 days essentially, well, that’s going to be really, really difficult.”

If that happens in the middle of the season or on a Friday night, a team might have to forfeit its game.

“Then it begs the question, ‘Should we be doing this [expletive] at all?'” former Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe told the Dallas Morning News.

A testing change that could be a home run: Hainline recently distributed to schools literature about “sample pooling.” That could be a real game-changer in expediting tests. According to a group of German virologists, samples from a group of players could be tested once together for positives rather than individually, thus saving time. If the groups are cleared, the entire segment of players are free to play. If a group tests positive, those players would then be tested individually to determine who is infected.

Honesty and accurate evaluation: One the documented problems of identifying head trauma immediately is that players will sometimes hide their symptoms to stay on the field. Hopefully, that’s not the case with coronavirus. Honesty will be key.

“If you wake up in the morning and you’ve got the little sniffles, you stay home,” Cohen said. “By staying home, it’s not about you being tough and [thinking], ‘You can play through this.’ It has to be, ‘I care about the chance of [my team] playing Saturday more than my chance to play Saturday.'”

It’s going to be expensive: Testing is not cheap. The Cal State University system chancellor last week estimated the price tag for his schools to be $25 million in an academic year. The Pac-12 has estimated testing costs in football to be $2.5 million per school, according to a source. Despite budgets shrinking, this is one expense that is necessary. To mitigate it, everything should be on the table. Why not “sponsors” for tests? The Crimson Tide’s coronavirus testing protocol tonight is brought to you tonight by Toyota.

There will still be significant risk: The bottom line is that athletes must be made fully aware of the risk. Coronavirus is a highly contagious disease that can kill persons of any age. One of the reasons college football is coming back so rapidly is because the age group playing the sport is at a lower risk.

“One of the problems we have is we have a population of young vigorous people who think they’re invulnerable,” Gee said.

But it’s a risk nonetheless, one that could end catastrophically. If a player chooses not to play a game or a season, that decision must be respected to the point of honoring a scholarship for the remainder of his career.

If that hurts feelings or the depth chart, too bad. The coronavirus doesn’t observe state boundaries, NCAA votes or college football schedules. It wants to always win.

“This is going to be a continual voyage of discovery,” Bowlsby said. “We’re going to have to innovate, innovate, innovate.”





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