Even as the 2020 football season creeps ever closer, decision-makers in college athletics remain uncertain what it will look like. The NCAA gave conferences and schoolsfor voluntary workouts -- and, in fact, some schools have already set return dates -- but the direction of the season itself remains hazy.
Arguably, the biggest hurdle for college football's return isn't whether the games will be held, or even when they will be held. Rather, it's whether fans will be allowed into stadiums, and if so, what the capacity for attendance will be.
Father John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, offered his thoughts in an opinion piece published via the New York Times. In it, Jenkins ponders not just the scientific questions of returning to normalcy in the COVID-19 outbreak, but the moral questions as well. How the Irish would hold home football games in a nearly 80,000-seat stadium is among them. In short, Jenkins explains there's no way to have crowds at Notre Dame Stadium without being able to enforce physical distancing.
Athletic competition presents another set of challenges. We believe we can, with aggressive testing, hygiene and careful monitoring, keep student-athletes safe. Indeed, keeping healthy relatively small cadres of student-athletes, coaches and support staff members is a less daunting challenge than keeping safe the several thousand other people in the campus community.
Fans in the stadium, however, are a different matter. Fighting Irish fans regularly fill Notre Dame Stadium's 80,000 seats. I see no way currently to allow spectators unless we restrict admissions so that physical distancing is possible.
As a football independent tied to a scheduling contract with the ACC, Notre Dame could be in a hard spot regardless if the 2020 season is anything less than uniform. The Fighting Irish have a schedule with games from California to Pennsylvania. Every state has its own guidelines for handling the pandemic, and every school has to make up its own mind about what is best.
But as far as attendance goes, Jenkins' opinion is shared by several others in the college athletics community. Testing, tracing and other best practices are more manageable -- though certainly not easy given what we already know about how the coronavirus spreads -- if the group is capped to college athletes, coaches, staff and the like. That doesn't mean there won't be another outbreak of cases within that group, but containment might be possible.
Other college football power brokers are asking similar questions. Iowa State is moving forward with guidelines to allow for up to 30,000 fans at Jack Trice Stadium all of whom will be season ticket holders. At Ohio State, athletic director Gene Smith has examined models for home games that would include anywhere from 20,000 fans to 50,000 fans, depending on state and federal guidelines.
But at Michigan, president Dr. Mark Schlissel that "if there is no on-campus instruction then there won't be intercollegiate athletics, at least for Michigan." Schlissel, an immunologist by trade, has also expressed that he has "some degree of doubt as to whether there will be college athletics [anywhere], at least in the fall." Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh has said he would be okay with home games being played .
Indeed, attendance is shaping up to be one of the 2020 season's true x-factors. It's not even a matter of whether fans are OK assuming the risks of going to a football game; it's a matter of who could contract the virus afterwards as a result of the mass gathering.
The likelihood is high that many schools will deal with attendance differently. It is but one issue when talking about a season that, assuming it begins on time, is about three months away. While schools have been given the go-ahead, the reality is that, as we enter June, there are few details of how to proceed.