NEVER say never. Those of us enough old enough to understand the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline and N.C. State’s 1983 NCAA basketball championship know you take things for granted at your own peril.
Speaking of peril, let’s discuss football, as metaphorical dark clouds continue to form over the scheduled season ahead.
The consensus has been that of all sports affected by the coronavirus, football got luckiest. The pandemic struck not long after February’s Super Bowl, leaving seven months before training camps were set to open.
That’s a lot of time to read the room and come up with a plan. Unlike the NBA and NHL (which paused their seasons just short of the playoffs) and baseball (which is still haggling over money), NFL and college officials could be patient. So, too, could high school federations.
Now, though, we have a mere six weeks until training gets serious. And while college athletes have begun returning to campus, there’s no guarantee that games will kick off as scheduled on Labor Day weekend. Same goes for the NFL openers the following weekend.
According to CNN, 21 states are reporting increasing coronavirus cases after businesses began reopening last month. And it has trickled down to the college level, where we get daily reports of players testing positive.
The University of Houston had to shut down workouts after six football players exhibited symptoms last week. Auburn announced that three players tested positive, while rival Alabama cited privacy laws in declining comment on reports that five of its players were infected. And there’s concern at Kansas State after a player tested positive after working out with teammates.
All have been quarantined, but they certainly won’t be the last to succumb to the virus as it continues to wreak havoc in an impatient populace. Many college programs have asked their players to sign non-binding waivers acknowledging risk before beginning workouts, but few actually tested all athletes upon their arrival on campus.
With all the uncertainty, how can anyone be confident in opening the season on time—if at all?
Universities have access to state-of-the-art medical care; many have hospitals on campus. The same goes for the NFL, which can afford to hire A-list physicians as consultants. And young, presumably fit athletes generally reside in the lower-risk category for short-term symptoms.
Still, they have parents, grandparents and children. Some of their coaches are AARP members and have underlying health issues that put them at higher risk. And collisions on every snap mean football players are among the most vulnerable.
We all know the enormous financial impact football has at all levels. Then NFL annually generates over $15 billion in revenue. College teams help pay for virtually every other program at their respective schools—many of which are already sacrificing cross country and swim teams as cost-cutting measures. Even at the high school level, Friday night football ticket sales can help buy new field hockey uniforms.
Losing that revenue would be a great inconvenience. But it pales in comparison to the consequences of another coronavirus outbreak this fall—especially as the annual flu season kicks in. Arguably, it would be worse to begin a football season, then have to suspend it than not to have one at all.
Don’t be surprised if seasons at all levels kick off later than expected and are abbreviated. High schools may be forced to play only their district rivals. Non-conference college games could be eliminated. That would be a financial setback for small schools like Georgia State, which is scheduled to play at Alabama on Sept. 12 in a game designed entirely for a paycheck.
No one can foresee the future. (We’d all be rich if we could.) But even though football is this country’s most popular sport—and the most fortunate in the pandemic—when it comes to projecting the number of games any team will play, take the under.