Don’t take anything that follows in this section as being against the concept of College Football. It’s a great sport, with the added benefit of allowing thousands of athletes annually to attend college on scholarship, who wouldn’t otherwise be able to study at a major university. But the obvious wild card element facing the 2020 season is the COVID-19 crisis.
Monday it was reported that Northwestern University became the seventh member of the Big 10 Conference (despite the conference’s name, there are 14 schools in the Big 10) to curtail their off-season, on-campus football workout program. The University of Illinois’ football team has had 18 positive COVID tests since they began practice in June. Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan State, Rutgers, and Maryland have suspended their pre-season workouts at various times this summer due to positive tests.
In an article from Teddy Greenstein, writing in the Chicago Tribune July 25, he noted an official from a Big 10 school said they wanted to have two or three COVID-19 tests per week for their players and staff. Let’s use Ohio State as an example. The Buckeyes currently have 104 players on their roster. In addition there are there are a total of 18 staff members with direct coaching responsibilities including Head Coach Ryan Day, 10 full time assistants and another seven quality control coaches or grad assistants. There are another 27 people who are listed under the football department who would have at least occasional interactions with the players including the recruiting staff, equipment staff, video coordinators and staff, two head athletic trainers and members of the marketing staff. That doesn’t include an additional dozen or so student trainers and equipment personnel. So let’s say there are 175 total people who would have to be tested to maintain any sort of protective bubble around the team, two or three times a week.
Ohio State has a world-class teaching hospital within walking distance of Ohio Stadium, so logistically that would work, but the athletic department would have to pay for the tests. More importantly, the test results must be returned in a timely manner for them to be effective, which is a nation-wide challenge thus far.
Trust me if Ohio State has that many players and staff in their football department, so do all of the schools who play in the Power 5 Conferences of the Big Ten, PAC-12, ACC, SEC and the Big 12. There has always been the football equivalent of an arms race in college football to be the biggest and the best. I was once in a meeting of the Athletic Directors of the now-defunct Metro Conference, when a motion was passed to limit the overall size and number of pages in the member school’s media guides because printing costs were getting out of hand due to the competition among the schools. That’s a relatively small budgetary line item, but the concept remains.
The point is the logistics for having a safe, competitive College Football season are staggering. The next level of football schools without major broadcast network revenues to count on are facing a difficult decision whether or not to play their seasons. And since football funds all the so-called Olympic Sports at major institutions, which used to be called non-revenue sports, there is also a harsh economic reality that must be faced if football isn’t played. Thus far, the Power Five Conferences have cancelled most of their non-conference games, which has the direct effect of pushing the start of the season back three weeks.
This might be an opportunity for colleges to slow the aforementioned arms race in football, this time for head coach’s salaries. As examples, Clemson’s Head Football Coach Dabo Sweeney weighs in at $9.3 million annually, and Alabama’s Nick Saban earns $8.85 million. Ohio State’s Ryan Day will earn $5.375 million in 2020, $6.5 million in 2021 and $7.6 million in 2022. Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh was slated to make $7.5 million this season but agreed to a 10 percent pay cut. As a guess, Coach Sweeney can probably make ends meet living in Clemson, South Carolina on $9.3 million.
Back to Greenstein’s Chicago Tribune article, he quotes a knowledgeable Big Ten source as saying his prognosis was the percentage chance of there being Big 10 football this season is 15 percent. A sobering thought for all sports fans.