The momentum building for the return of some semblance of sports feels like the boulder bearing down on Harrison Ford in a Peruvian cave. Everyone’s pushing it. Ready or not, here it comes. Doesn’t matter how your political persuasion may dictate your sensibilities. Andrew Cuomo, Democratic governor of the nation’s coronavirus cauldron, is waving any and all pro teams into New York like the mayor of Amity proclaiming the bloody beaches wide open.
Of course, all due diligence will be taken this summer to make sure the gladiators, um, student-athletes, remain protected. Even as you’re reading this, college athletic facilities are being fumigated to facilitate their safety. Locker rooms and weight rooms and training rooms will be “hospital quality,” as Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 commissioner, put it Monday on Fox Sports 1. You can almost smell the disinfectant.
League officials have been in constant contact with the White House coronavirus task force. Bowlsby has spent as much time talking to doctors and scientists as athletic officials. Big 12 football players will be tested every other day. Quarantined, practically. Lesser non-conference opponents will be ruthlessly scrutinized to make sure their standards are up to the imperious Power Five’s.
Since the world shut down two months ago, not a day has passed that the Big 12 and its cohorts haven’t meticulously made plans for the return of football. The round-the-clock effort won’t go for naught, either. Not that it was an overriding factor. Football will be back, folks, if for no other reason than the money says so.
Just the same, you should be prepared for what you’re about to witness in a few months.
“Even doing all that,” Bowlsby told Fox’s Joel Klatt after summing up precautions, “we’re gonna have a Tuesday afternoon where somebody tests positive in a locker room, and we’re gonna have to quarantine. And the game on Saturday is gonna be delayed or it’s gonna be postponed or canceled.
“We’re just gonna have to live with those things.”
And what if a player or coach or athletic trainer doesn’t do everyone a favor and test positive on Tuesday? What if it happens Saturday morning, when you’re already in town and geared up and ready to go?
“Then it begs the question,” former Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe told me, “should we be doing this (expletive) at all?”
Beebe wasn’t in any way, shape or form trying to cut the legs out from under his successor and friend. He’s sympathetic about a near-impossible set of circumstances playing out here. But at some point the question needs to be asked, even if no one is prepared to answer.
College football will be played this fall because it carries the note on all the other sports. Athletic budgets aren’t built like the legislature’s. There are no rainy-day funds to raid. Most athletic programs outside Austin and College Station were in the red before the pandemic exerted its squeeze. For an idea of what’s in store, A.J. Maestas, founder of Navigate Research, a sports analytics consulting firm, told the Associated Press that approximately 200 schools cut programs after the recession. Imagine what effect this pandemic and economic crisis, the greatest since the Great Depression, will entail. Especially when donors turn out their pockets to inquiring athletic directors.
Just this week, Furman eliminated baseball and lacrosse. Many, many more will be dumped in the weeks and months to come. Power Five conferences have petitioned the NCAA to temporarily waive requirements for membership, including the minimum 16 sports that schools must sponsor.
Coaches and administrators are taking pay cuts of as much as 50% in some places, but it won’t be enough. Not without football. Which is why the game will be back, warts and all.
Get this: Bowlsby envisions a scenario where teams rebuild their schedules on the fly.
“Because if somebody has to quarantine for two weeks,” he told Klatt, “there’s two teams coming up on the schedule that don’t have anybody to play.”
Which means some teams might play 12 games, others 10. Or eight. Who knows?
Exactly how do you decide a champion under those conditions?
Get used to it, Bowlsby said.
“I think this virus is gonna be around with us for a while,” he told Klatt. “It’s gonna be like the chicken pox or like HIV or like SARS. It isn’t gonna just magically go away. We’re gonna have to learn to coexist with it. That’s what every scientist is telling us, that’s what every doctor is telling us.
“Nobody can put a time frame on it.”
If you’d like an idea, though, Bowlsby says all the experts tell them to expect it to take 18 to 24 months before everything returns to normal. Or something approximating what normal used to be.
In the meantime, we may get football, or some version of it, but Bowlsby isn’t so sure about basketball. The advent of flu season won’t help. For that matter, it may affect the prospects of football conference championship games and the College Football Playoff, particularly if the start of the season is delayed.
Delayed or not, football will be back, if not fans or cheerleaders or pom squads or marching bands, because it has to be. Because, going forward, there’s none of the above without it.
“It’ll eventually normalize,” Bowlsby assured Klatt, “but it’s going to be a challenge for awhile.”
Longer than you’d like to think, probably. Not that anyone seems to care. We’re entering uncharted territory, but damn the torpedoes, anyway.