Questions raised as students leave campus with the 2020 college football season approaching

Elwanda Tulloch

Watch Now: CBS Sports Preseason All-America Team: Trevor Lawrence Highlights List (3:01) Think about one of the biggest criticisms of big-time college athletics before the COVID-19 pandemic: Players are isolated from the student body, tucked away in the athletic facility spending more time on their sport than their major. Critics […]

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CBS Sports Preseason All-America Team: Trevor Lawrence Highlights List
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Think about one of the biggest criticisms of big-time college athletics before the COVID-19 pandemic: Players are isolated from the student body, tucked away in the athletic facility spending more time on their sport than their major. Critics even used the word “bubble” to describe the world in which they lived.

Now for your weekly measure of coronavirus surrealism: A bubble might be the only thing that saves college football.

Not through any strategic planning, mind you. It might be all that’s left to try given the circumstances.

This week, three teams playing in the ACC this year (Notre Dame, North Carolina, NC State) either sent students home or paused in-person classes because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

That’s just a sample. UCLA has “drastically” reduced on-campus housing due to the virus. The Chronicle of Higher Education counted 86 students suspended at five schools for improper gatherings. Then there’s the 300 faculty members at Georgia that have called in-person classes “unwise.”

None of this impacts football directly. Rather, it is creating increasingly bad optics.

What kind of message are these schools sending? If students aren’t safe on campus, how can football plow on? It is the most intimate (100-plus players), physically demanding sport in collegiate athletics.

“You can’t put them in a bubble, because they’re students and they have to go to class,” former Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman told the Wall Street Journal.

A true bubble isn’t feasible for college football, particularly because teams will be traveling to play one another. There would always be open loops. Professional athletes can negotiate their working and testing conditions. On some level, college players still need the freedom to be students — socialize, see their families and friends … go to class.

Otherwise, they would be human shields — athletic mercenaries thrown out there to achieve an economic goal. That may be happening anyway. It depends how you look at it.

At most schools, the loss of football revenue is a fraction of the potential impact on the campus’ bottom line compared to the loss of tuition money, housing and even parking.

“I keep trying to make the point that this is not an athletic story,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “It is about whether schools can successfully return to residential education.”

At the time, Swarbrick said Notre Dame’s “success at starting back up” would have more impact on fall sports than anything else. The school has now moved to fully online courses for at least two weeks amid a COVID-19 outbreak. The football team continues to practice.

Four months ago, conference commissioners told Vice President Mike Pence that there would be no football without students on campus. Back then, Swarbrick said, “It’s just hard to figure out how you can say, ‘We believe the campus isn’t safe for our student body, and oh, we’re going to bring one group of students back.'”

It was hard to figure out … until it wasn’t.

Administrators quickly got around that edict with so-called “hybrid” learning. If there’s 10 biology students who absolutely have to be on campus to conduct experiments, then a campus isn’t truly closed, is it?

At its core, maybe the conflict comes down to a questioning of the national emergency itself. Doesn’t that designation alone suggest that being cautious– even over cautious — is a sound policy?

Apparently not when it comes to football. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have pushed their decision to play until January 2021 at the earliest. The SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Conference USA and have increased testing protocols to try to get through fall. Conference USA just canceled all fall sports except football. Why, you might ask, is football safe to play when every other sport is not?

The University of Alabama has seen rates among students grow significantly, and in-person student events have been paused for 14 days. Again, those in-person student events don’t include football, which is also a high-contact, high-participation (and high-income) event.

A video published Thursday by the Baylor Lariat student newspaper showed yet another mass gathering by students disregarding every piece of medical advice out there. “We’re going to be online by September,” one Baylor student said. 

We’re now in the uncomfortable position of judging whether playing college football is safer than going to college. Nobody knows for sure. We’ve only been studying the coronavirus for a few months. Students have been back on campus for a few days.

The implications of halting in-person classes but continuing to play football could be massive. A bubble may save the sport, but at that point, how different would the players actually look from employees? (Other than the lack of paycheck, of course.)

Not much else. Athletes would only have the thinnest attachment to the “student” part. As of now, the only reason those players are still on campus is to play football. 

As long as everyone can look themselves in the mirror, that’s fine. The feeling here is that won’t be possible. At least not for everyone. In fact, there’s already a lot of rationalization going on.

The cry of no students, no football has been lost to the fear that no football means no money.

Increasingly, the mantra of April (The student-athlete is No. 1) is being replaced by the demands of August: Football is No. 1.

Please don’t act like you’re surprised by any of this. The Next Great Hurdle was going to be getting over the inevitable outbreaks on campus. While they don’t necessarily have anything to do with football being played, they’re a reminder that the perception continues to be negative.

It reflects on any campus’ ability to control the spread when it’s borne by 18-to-22-year-olds in the prime of their lives. 

Or maybe that’s not even the discussion at all. Maybe students shouldn’t be blamed when it comes to playing the football season.

Maybe the blame goes to the presidents and ADs who thought they could push through this thing. Those 76 remaining FBS schools are now nearly the outlier in playing college football at any level this fall.

It also raises the question: Just what are we doing? The SEC has increased medical protocols; it and the Big 12 will be testing three times each week during the season.

Is it enough? Are the Big Ten and Pac-12 the wise ones here?

Remember when it used to be easy to figure winners and losers in this sport?

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