Hot Reads: No 'Red Light
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Hot Reads: No ‘Red Light, Green Light’ for Return of College Sports

May 11, 2020

Maybe the old rules don't currently apply, but generally speaking if you have some news you want people to pay attention to, you don't put that news out there on a Friday night. NCAA president Mark Emmert appeared on the organization's official Twitter account for a video series on, you guessed it, Friday night.

I'll let you decided for yourself what the timing of that means––perhaps nothing––but Emmert did share some information of note. Personally, I've been operating as if the start of June might be a key stretch for deciding the fate of fall sports seasons on campus. The Big Ten's current ban on team activities is scheduled to expire on June 1, for example, though it has been extended twice before.

That may be a little on the early side, but not by much. "I suspect that people are going to have to make decisions sometime in June," Emmert said on Friday. "Maybe by the Fourth of July."

Notice that "people" will have to make those decisions. Emmert said it was unlikely that athletic programs would return to activities on the same schedule and no grand reopening date is coming via the NCAA. The governing body will have to effectively open things up by saying, "OK, it's up to you," but beyond that varying local restrictions and regulations might determine the timeline.

The other key pieces to come from Emmert's Friday night chat pertained to fans in the stands. From ESPN's recap:

"Just because there's some regulation that's been lifted doesn't mean that automatically means you should immediately put 105,000 fans in a football stadium," Emmert said. "I think that the proper thing to do and the sensible thing to do is a phased approach. It's plausible to me that early in the season, let's just stick with football, you see a very limited fan access, but by later in the season, as things develop, hopefully in a very positive way, you all of sudden can see larger fan bases attending."

That one legitimately surprised me. As we've all listened to school presidents, athletic directors and conference commissioners give their individual assessments of where things stand and what it means for the future, one consistent thread I kept noticing was that the idea of playing without fans seemed to be the break-in-case-of-emergency choice. Back at the end of March, when this all was still relatively new, I figured that was the only path forward for football in the fall, but in the weeks that followed it started to seem like basically a non-starter at the administrative level.

When a home football game at a major school is worth millions of dollars to the university, maybe that shouldn't be a surprise. If the impetus for the return of football in particular is largely financial, we can't be too surprised that schools would rather not give up a piece of the pie if they don't have to simply to have some pie.

Emmert's comments, however, read to me like an on-time start (or close to it) with a phased reintroduction of fans was more likely than any of the school-level administrators have been willing to let on. But maybe that's nothing, too, because, again, the NCAA apparently isn't going to have much of a hand in this.

If you read the NCAA's recently released "Core Principles of Resocialization of College Sport" you'll quickly see that most everything is going to be up to the schools. For example, here's a representative guideline from Phase One: "Gyms and common areas where student-athletes and staff are likely to congregate and interact, should remain closed unless strict distancing and sanitation protocols can be implemented."

You can't unless you can. The document is full of things like that.

When asked to summarize key points in the document the first thing Dr. Brian Hainline, NCAA chief medical officer, mentioned was that this wasn't a "red light, green light" scenario. It is, according to the NCAA's guidelines, largely on the schools to make sure they can do this safely, which is much easier said than done.

But it seems like it will get done somehow. As of Monday morning, 74% of schools responding to a Department of Education poll were "planning for in-person classes" this fall.

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