So are college football and other sports happening in 2020 or not?
Not even 20/20 vision would help you predict if 2020 will bring sports and more of my bad jokes your way.
We’re about a month deep in the COVID-19 quarantine and the decision to see if 2020 fall sports—like football—can take place without any changes will likely come in a little over a month or two. Still, let’s take an early look at some options and some timelines.
To be clear, I care very little about what football administrators or anyone other than epidemiologists, public health experts, etc. predict about the outlook of the virus. However, there is some value in seeing the discussions they’re having and the futures they’re planning. For starters, the College Football Playoff staff is currently planning for the best-case scenario of a rapid solution to this mess and for the college football postseason to go on as planned. They openly acknowledge that they aren’t going to be decision-makers for whether or not this can happen, but are preparing just in case.
To get some insight into the thoughts of such decision-makers, we’ll go high up the ladder for the government response. It has been well documented that President Trump is eager to see sports return with fans in the stands.
“I want fans back in the arenas. Whenever we’re ready and as soon as we can, obviously. The fans want to be back, too. They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey. They want to see their sports. They want to go out on the golf courses and breath[e] nice[,] clean[,] beautiful air.
“I can’t tell you a date, but I think it’s going to be sooner rather than later.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci—presidential advisor, immunologist, and member of the White House’s coronavirus task force—spoke on the issue in a Snapchat interview. After taking a minute to process that interviews on Snapchat with leading experts on a global pandemic are somehow part of reality, you’ll see that Fauci believes “there’s a way” of having sports return and potentially college football in the fall.
Fauci proposes this is feasible if the players are quarantined in hotels with weekly testing and without any fans in attendance. Although the question did explicitly list college football (unless there was some editing), I don’t see how this is even an option for college athletics. It can work for the pros—who are getting paid for their time and can thus consider this lifestyle to be part of their job—but this sounds like absolute insanity to propose for college students who aren’t getting paid. Even if the schools pay for the hotels, I can’t imagine there wouldn’t be an uproar about forcing student-athletes to be boarded up in hotels 24/7 with the exception of games and practice. Regarding his plan in general, given that the US has a shortage of tests, I can’t imagine it would be practical to set aside such a massive number of tests for routine checks on players, coaches, and staff.
An added road bump in Trump’s plan came when Vice President Pence spoke with the College Football Playoff Management Committee, which “clear[ly]” stated that college athletics will not resume until colleges open for students at large.
"Our players are students. If we're not in college, we're not having contests," said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who was on the call.
"Our message was, we need to get universities and colleges back open, that we were education-based programs, and we weren't going to have sports until we had something closer to normal college going on," he added.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott was among the voices emphasizing that college sports cannot continue until colleges themselves continue. However, he believes that allowing fans to attend is a separate issue and conversation from even that—universities may reopen and college athletics may return, but allowing thousands of fans (or threes of Stanfurd fans) to file into a crowded stadium will require an even better handle on the virus.
From the perspective of the schools, it’s looking somewhat questionable that they will resume as normal come Fall 2020. For the University of California system in particular, our universities are exploring options for a hybrid, semi-closed system in which large classes would be held online, while smaller classes and labs would be socially distant in-person. If we’re banning lectures with hundreds of students, then I can’t imagine we would allow teams of that size to gather—let alone crowds in the tens of thousands.
ESPN’s Chris Fowler took to Instagram like the millennial he is to give his opinion and insight. While—once again—I believe the authority will ultimately lie in public-health officials, it is worth noting that he likely has some insider’s intel into the discussions and preparations on the football side of things. Fowler does not expect the season will start in the fall as planned on Week 0, but football will happen at some point during the academic year—although it may be shortened. One of Fowler’s arguments is that college football is more “complex” than pro sports and will require coordination across states, which will be in various states of virus progression. Fowler is a fan of the season happening in the spring, which would be interesting to consider the effects on other sports and how the NCAA would coordinate with the NFL for the draft.
But I (and Fowler) have spent all this time with the disclaimer that the decisions will—or at least, should—come down to people like epidemiologists and scientists. Predictions are changing daily—as information is wont to do in these circumstances—but I recommend the Atlantic for a comprehensive, non-football-centric look at what the future may hold. According to University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, we may not see a return to “regular” life for two years. The scientists who were interviewed for this article caution against any attempts to hastily cease social distancing and haphazardly reopen businesses and schools, instead recommending a timeline that does not seem to have any room for college athletics in the 2020 school year.
Now that the U.S. is slowing the pandemic, gently easing back on social distancing would be safer, [Princeton’s Dylan] Morris argues, than snapping back to business as usual when small missteps could be catastrophic. “If we’re judicious about how we lift restrictions, we might never have to go back into lockdown,” he said.
This process might take several weeks to unfold, and even at the end of it, none of the experts I spoke with was comfortable with the return of crowded public spaces. [Former FDA commissioner Scott] Gottlieb’s road map, for example, recommends that until a vaccine or an effective treatment is produced, social gatherings should be limited to 50 people or fewer. … Elsewhere, concerts, conferences, summer camps, political rallies, large weddings, and major sporting events may all have to be suspended for at least this year. “It’s hard for me to imagine anyone going to Fenway Park and sitting with 30,000 fans—that will almost surely be a bad idea,” said Ashish Jha, an internist and public-health expert at Harvard. “This isn’t going to look like a normal summer in America.”
Unfortunately, that’s quite a swing in predictions for the return of college athletics from “business as usual” to “goodbye, 2020–21 season”. And—for me, at least—that uncertainty and lack of a firm answer can be tougher than the problem itself. Instead, we just have to sit (at home, away from others) and wait to see how the situation unfolds.