USA Today ran a series of articles this past week examining the possibility of a fall without football, and what that might mean for players, schools and fans.
A fall without football? That’s almost impossible for most fans to grasp, but especially those of us who grew up in a college town like Athens, where the autumn pretty much revolves around those weekends when thousands of fans and alums flood into town to see their favorite team play.
Fall and football are so intertwined in Athens that I can’t really conceive of one without the other, because it’s never happened in my lifetime.
I mean, I can pretty much wrap my mind around a shortened season played this fall with no nonconference games, or maybe the conference games plus the annual intrastate grudge match with Tech.
And, after several months of contemplating the possibility, I’ve come to terms with the idea of games at Sanford Stadium being played this fall with no (or few) fans in attendance. Until there’s a COVID-19 vaccine, a lot of us wouldn’t feel comfortable (and wouldn’t be safe, if we’re in the high-risk category) in any sort of crowd, anyway.
While a game with nobody lining up in Reed Plaza for hot dogs and nachos and no crowd to Light Up Sanford at the beginning of the fourth quarter might seem strange, especially for the players, at least we could watch the action on TV. (Hopefully, they wouldn’t try to replace the missing fans with fake crowd noise.)
Which brings up another issue: Some folks no doubt would be inclined to replace their usual Myers Quad tailgating routine by seeing if they could outdo one another with elaborate viewing parties at their homes, but that’s risky if you don’t already live together. Socializing during a pandemic comes at a price, and, as some folks have found out, it can be a very steep price.
If you want to play it safe, but still have the urge to share the game in real time with friends of family, I suppose maybe Zoom viewing parties of games might become a thing.
However, as the USA Today articles made clear, if the current pandemic surge continues unabated, there’s a decent chance that college football’s powers-that-be might decide it’s too risky to play college football this fall at all, and either push the season to the spring, or, the nuclear option: skip this season completely.
That’s difficult to imagine. To some folks, it might even seem impossible. NCAA President Mark Emmert has noted that the “data point in the wrong direction” for football to be played, but, even if the NCAA were to issue a no-football-this-fall edict, some in the college football world cling to the idea that the SEC somehow would persevere, come hell or high infection rate.
I’m sure there’ll be political pressure to play, no matter what, but, frankly, if the rest of college sports is sitting out the fall, the idea that one conference, or even a couple of conferences, would push ahead seems unlikely.
More probable, I think, would be a rescheduling of a season of some sort for next spring. That option raises its own set of problems, both financial and practical — could players be expected to endure two seasons in one calendar year? And would early enrollees in January be allowed to play? There’s also a good chance that those star players who expect to be part of next year’s NFL draft would decide not to stick around for a spring college season.
But, I’m not sure what the alternative would be. Blawg reader Walter Lewis of Savannah dropped me a note the other day suggesting that maybe college basketball and football could “switch seasons,” since “basketball involves protecting far fewer players and coaches.” Crazier things have happened (just this year), but I’m not sure such a plan would be workable.
He said his chief fear is that “they’ll play the season, but no team will have all of their key players healthy enough to play at any given time, causing controversy at playoff selection time, leading to a hollow if not meaningless National Championship.”
As bad as that sounds, I think that’s the more positive scenario.
As Walter pointed out, even if the season isn’t postponed or canceled, fielding teams in the midst of a pandemic week after week is going to be a major challenge. Football is a contact sport, so social distancing is impossible. Just this week, the entire Michigan State football team was put in quarantine for 14 days after a student athlete and a couple of staff members tested positive for COVID-19. There’s a pretty good chance that will happen to some, if not most, teams if football goes ahead this fall. Another wild card: Players could opt to sit out the season (as some professional athletes have done), since the SEC announced athletes will have the opportunity to opt out of the 2020 season and maintain their scholarships without taking a redshirt year.
If the rest of the country deemed it unsafe to play football, and the SEC did so anyway, the results could be disastrous for the conference and its schools. It’s true that young people are less likely to suffer the most dire consequences when they catch the virus, but many still find themselves knocked on their butt for 10 days to 2 weeks, and even those who are asymptomatic can spread it to others, who might be more at risk.
Also, even young, healthy people occasionally die from this virus. Imagine what the blowback would be like for a school that defied convention to play ball during a pandemic, and then saw one of its athletes die.
I can’t really imagine UGA’s Jere Morehead and Greg McGarity, or presidents and athletic directors at the SEC’s other schools, being willing to take that chance.
No football at all is, of course the worst-case scenario here. If I had to bet, I’d put my money on the season opening sometime in September — probably with reduced or no attendance, and with fewer games scheduled. As McGarity said recently: “I think we would all be naïve if we think there’s going to be 100% capacity.”
Even if college football is played this fall, I am skeptical that most teams will be able to make it all the way through even a shortened season without missing a game or two.
These are college students, after all. You can’t put them in an isolated “bubble” like some pro teams are attempting. And, if the University System of Georgia goes ahead with its plans for on-campus education this fall, and the students continue to act as many young people have this summer — oblivious to the dangers and not bothering with wearing masks or social distancing — the chances of football players being exposed to the virus away from the practice field or locker room escalate considerably.
What if, say, your starting center tests positive 72 hours before a game? There goes your entire starting offensive line for a couple of weeks, and possibly your quarterback, too. And the turnaround on test results in Georgia has been lagging as much as a couple of weeks, so it’s possible an asymptomatic player whose results aren’t in yet could be exposing a bunch of teammates.
(You have to wonder if some cautious coaches might decide to have their second- and third-stringers practice separately from the starters; otherwise, they might not even be able to field a team at all for a couple of games.)
And, if the feared second wave of the virus combines with flu season to deliver a public health double-whammy in late fall, I think it entirely likely that even an already abbreviated season will come to an early end, and the postseason and College Football Playoff either will be scrubbed for this year, or delayed until the winter-spring (depending on how the vaccine programs progress). Another, possibility: a split season that ends in, say, early November and picks up sometime later.
So, what if we really do have a fall without football? Financially, that would do major damage to a lot of college athletics programs, which are supported by the millions of dollars football pulls in. UGA would be in better shape to weather the storm than many schools, thanks to McGarity’s much-derided “rainy day” reserve fund, but the athletic association still would suffer a hit. When I inquired a while back about what the refund policy would be on Hartman contributions and season tickets, I was told: “As is our standard policy in the unlikely event that individual games or the full season are canceled, the UGA Ticket Office will refund tickets purchased for that contest/s. Refunds on the tickets will be given for games not played.”
(My bet is that, if this comes to pass, they’ll offer you the option to roll over your ticket purchase to next season, so they don’t have to cut all those checks. Oklahoma already has said it’s going to do something along those lines.)
Also, the Hartman Fund has said that, if the season is scrubbed, Bulldog Club members can get their 2020 donations refunded, if they wish. (I imagine most would choose to let the Hartman Fund keep their money, rather than lose a season’s worth of priority points.)
Whether it’s a few thousand fans spaced throughout the stadium, or no fans in attendance, one thing is sure: It’s doubtful any of the season ticket holders is going to be happy.
A fall without football also might scramble recruiting for Kirby Smart and his staff, as well as other aspects of the sport, though the NCAA probably would step in to try and sort out some of those complications, perhaps delaying national signing day.
The real financial hit would be taken by the businesses in Athens (and other college towns) that depend on all those visitors who double the Classic City’s population on football weekends. The grim prospect is that, even if the season were shifted to the spring, many Athens shops and restaurants might not make it through the winter without that fall football money.
And, there are a lot of other folks whose occupations revolve chiefly around football season. What would a fall without games mean for them?
Beyond the direct financial ramifications of a fall without football, there’s also the societal impact. What the heck would we do with our Saturday afternoons? As my brother Tim put it: “It definitely would make for a boring fall.”
I’d like to think some of us would read more, plant some fall gardens or enjoy the brilliant fall foliage. But, chances are, we’ll still watch football — only, from the past.
I imagine the SEC Network would continue replaying old games, though I agree with my brother, who said he wishes they “would show more of previous years, instead of showing 2019 over and over again.”
Hopefully, they’d dig deeper into the ESPN-ABC sports library, and at least show some of those games from the ‘80s and ‘90s that we used to see on ESPN Classic.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved last season’s win over Notre Dame, but rather than watch the Dawgs outduel the Irish for the umpteenth time, I’d much rather see something else from the Vince Dooley years — besides the 1980 Georgia-Florida game, which was replayed again Saturday — or even games from the Ray Goff or Jim Donnan eras.
The one game I don’t mind them repeating endlessly is the Rose Bowl win over Oklahoma from a couple of years ago. No matter how many times I see Jake Fromm throw that block to spring Sony Michel for that last Dawgs touchdown in double-overtime, it never gets old. I watch it every time it’s shown.
Finally, as we endure one of the craziest, hardest, most dispiriting years in memory, we also can engage in an age-old pastime enjoyed by football fans throughout the game’s history, by saying to ourselves:
Wait until next year!