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Rooney: Spring football, at best, closer to reality after Pac-12 eliminates nonconference games

Failure to quell pandemic puts all NCAA athletics in jeopardy

BOULDER, CO - November 23, 2019:    Colorado's  Jaren Mangham jumps over Tim Lynott Jr against Washington during the game in Boulder on November 23, 2019.
 (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Cliff Grassmick/Staff photographer
BOULDER, CO – November 23, 2019: Colorado’s Jaren Mangham jumps over Tim Lynott Jr against Washington during the game in Boulder on November 23, 2019. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

It’s March all over again. And this time, with an entire academic year of NCAA athletics teetering on the brink of collapse, the fallout will be far more expansive and damaging.

In an all-time Friday evening news dump, the Pac-12 Conference announced it was canceling the entire nonconference schedule for football as well as all other fall sports. The idea is to buy time amid a COVID-19 pandemic tearing through large swaths of the nation at levels not seen since the situation took hold in March.

At this point, however, time is running out. Fast.

Four months ago, the dominoes fell in quick succession. From the time conferences announced their basketball tournaments would be held without fans, it took roughly 24 hours for those tournaments to get canceled altogether alongside the NCAA Tournaments and the entire slate of spring sports competitions.

With the football season officially compromised — the Pac-12 followed the lead of the Big Ten, which canceled its fall nonconference games a day earlier — those same dominoes aren’t likely to fall quite as rapidly. League and university officials will do anything in their power to field some sort of football season, even if it is pushed into 2021. The football-driven economics for athletic departments, and universities as a whole, is far too critical to completely pull the plug just yet.

Still, make no mistake — spring football is likely to soon be a reality. Given the current curve of the coronavirus and the inane political debate regarding the simple act of wearing a face covering in public, the chances of witnessing even a conference-only football season this fall are dimming by the day. The elimination of nonconference games only buys one month, and yesterday’s announcement also indefinitely postponed the resumption of official workouts — set to begin Monday for football and the following week in other sports — for all Pac-12 programs.

Until teams can conduct full practices safely, playing season openers in late September will remain a fantasy.

Right now we are closer to the start of preseason basketball practice than we were to the start of preseason football practice in March, and look how that turned out. Blame whoever or whatever you want, but the simple truth is our nation was unable to get this pandemic under even a semblance of control over the past four months. With the curve going the wrong way in a hurry, there is little reason to be confident matters will turn around over the next two months.

As for the cancellation of the Rocky Mountain Showdown, Colorado’s first visit to Colorado State since 1996, it remains unclear if the Pac-12 CEO group discussed any leeway for such regional matchups that would be less dicey travel-wise than most of the travel situations within league play (CU athletic director Rick George is scheduled to meet virtually with the media on Monday).

The state’s biggest collegiate rivalry isn’t a casualty in football alone — also off the ledger is the CU volleyball team’s home-and-home set against the Rams, as well as a showdown in soccer. Other local matchups have met the same fate in the Pac-12. Arizona State and Northern Arizona are only about three hours apart. Washington State and Idaho aren’t much further apart than a Steven Montez-to-KD Nixon flea flicker. Utah-Brigham Young is off the docket. Meanwhile those Pac-12 teams in question nonetheless will travel much further within the league slate.

But that’s not the point here. While CSU athletic director Joe Parker said his university would gladly abide by any and all Pac-12 protocols to make the Rocky Mountain Showdown happen for the first time in CSU’s Canvas Stadium, other institutions (Northern Arizona?) might be financially restricted from making the same guarantees. Testing and quarantines aren’t cheap, especially for athletic departments already deep into coronavirus-related budget cuts.

Get this curve flattened — for real, this time — and maybe we can enjoy a spring college sports bonanza with a college football playoff and NCAA basketball tournaments unfolding at the same time. It’s not ideal, but nothing is at this point. And if the pandemic threat is significantly reduced by then, the unique setting of the competitions will be something to celebrate.

If not, then this may be the beginning of the end of NCAA athletics as we know them.

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