What will be more disastrous: playing football, or not playing football?

As bad news piles up, we must spend time pondering more 2020 worst-case scenarios.

Will Cal’s plan to partially reopen campus end up as a successful middle ground?

It’s late June, and like in normal years, college football players around the country are participating in voluntary summer workouts. In just over a month, teams from around the country will begin mandatory fall practice in early August.

And meanwhile, a pandemic is consistently spreading throughout the country, state by state, city by city. While we all fear a powerful second wave when fall and winter bring cooler weather, the current reality is that our country is experiencing a long plateau of a first wave, as most of the country has given up trying to limit the spread amid inaction and incompetence at the federal level.

This week we got plenty of foreshadowing for what’s all-but-guaranteed to happen during the fall season. Clemson announced that 28 people in their athletic department tested positive; anonymous sources said that 23 of those were football players. Texas reported a number of positive tests. Houston shut down team activity for a period of time in response to positive tests, as has Kansas State after 14 players tested positive:

Two parents who said they attended the meeting were told Kansas State was experiencing a spike in positive tests and that 55 football players needed to be re-tested. They’d been identified due to contact tracing because some unknown number attended parties last weekend with players who later tested positive for COVID-19. In less than one week, the program went from zero to two to eight to 14 confirmed positives.

That’s four infection clusters in three different states out of the 130 FBS programs in this country, with who-knows-how-many individual infections that haven’t been reported publicly. The clusters were enough to make team activities difficult if not impossible, but not so prevalent as to infect the entire roster of 100+ players on most teams. It’s obvious what teams, coaches, administrators, and fans will all face in the fall: inevitable infection clusters that will make football activity difficult - to say nothing of moral questions.

That inevitability has also led to some interesting responses from administrators and players. Administrators, recognizing the inevitability of spread, are already looking to limit their legal liability. Players, recognizing the inevitability of spread, are looking to use their newfound power to make sure that their superiors take care of them. But beyond little hints at what is to come, no program or conference (and certainly not the NCAA) has released any kind of definitive vision of what the expect pandemic football to look like.

The only way this all could work is if programs could isolate an entire program. Maybe take over a dorm right next to the practice field and hermetically seal off 100 young adults and staff from the outside world. That kind of extreme plan could maybe work for professional sports, but the NCAA is busy fighting an existential battle for their exploitative business model,* and that business model INSISTS that players are only incidentally playing football while they focus on their school work. Michigan, for just one example, recognizes that isolating an entire program can’t happen:

“I can tell you we will not isolate our student-athletes and put them in a hotel and keep them there — they’re not professionals,” Manuel said. “We won't get into a situation where we are placing them into a hotel continuously to isolate them from their fellow students and whomever else. It’s just not in our plans is not something that we're looking to do. If that is the only way that we we have to proceed, then we will have to make other decisions, obviously.”

That ‘we will have to make other decisions’ clause is doing lots of vague work, but reads to me like, say, canceling football games.

If you haven’t already, make sure to read the entirety of The Athletic’s article on the Kansas State cluster. It’s a real-life example of the difficulty of controlling the spread of this virus. Even just one asymptomatic spreader can pass the virus to multiple people even in the span between taking the test and getting back your results. And as Kansas State coaches discovered, enforcing rules to halt the spread will be a challenge:

The parents said Klieman praised the majority of the players for doing everything they’ve been asked but called out the “15 percent” who aren’t following the safety policies. They said Taylor informed the team that players in the 15 percent group could be risking their scholarships if they continued to behave irresponsibly.

Taylor confirmed their account but insists he and Klieman are not planning to rescind any players’ scholarships. They were merely trying to make players and parents understand the seriousness of the matter. He said Klieman did clarify with players after the Zoom meeting that nobody is losing their scholarship.

Punishing college athletes for, well, doing normal college student things in states where they are legally allowed to do normal college student things . . . well, that’s just not a tool programs are going to be able to wield.

The consequences of playing football games in the fall are clear: the continued spread of a very serious illness. Whether it’s due to some sort of change in the virus or a better understanding of how to treat infections, we all hope that mortality rates from COVID-19 continue to decline. But running practices and playing games will inevitably spread the virus. We know this because practices are spreading the virus right now.

Are the inevitable deaths from that spread worse than the economic consequences of not having a football season? Do I feel gross and awful for even typing out and proposing that question? Yes, and yes. This country perhaps had a shot at controlling the spread of COVID-19 in late winter and early spring, and failed. But it appears likely that, much as we’ve given up on slowing virus spread generally, we’ll give up trying to slow virus spread by college football.

Which means I’m girding myself for the worst of all possibilities: The NCAA and its members attempt to have a 2020 football season, but games are inevitably canceled when a virus cluster of 10-15 infections pops up and an entire team has to go into two-week quarantine. Thus, we get the worst of both worlds: college football activity that actively spread a deadly pandemic, and a season that is compromised to the point of irrelevancy.

*The NCAA is so desperate to save themselves that they presumably paid one of America’s most shameless senators to write them their dream legislation, which thankfully will never pass because the need for NCAA reform is a bipartisan opinion.