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Rooney: Pulling plug on fall football looming closer

Less than two weeks from preseason camp, sport in disarray

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
BOULDER, CO – November 23, 2019: Colorado’s Mark Perry pressures Washington’s Jacob Eason during the game in Boulder on November 23, 2019. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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At what point will enough finally be enough? With the coronavirus pandemic still largely uncontained and player revolt, particularly in the Pac-12 Conference, gaining steam, at what point does a viable 2020 college football season become an impossible dream?

We’re already there. And given all the time, effort, finances, and planning that has gone into resuming football workouts and mapping out revamped schedules, we’re into the first week of August with the threat of a Pac-12 player boycott and a schedule resting on a wing and a prayer. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the great COVID-19 football experiment.

Just look around. In the Pac-12, the list of demands published via The Player’s Tribune by a group of Pac-12 football players under the mantle of #WeAreUnited threatened a looming player boycott if those demands — not the least of which concerns the idea of young men, largely minorities, putting their individual health at risk to keep other peoples’ giant economic wheel spinning — are not met. On Tuesday, the Fort Collins Coloradoan published a story alleging COVID-19 cover-ups by the CSU coaching staff, citing several anonymously-sourced players and athletic department staffers (though several CSU players quickly took to Twitter to refute the claims).

Still, the list goes on. A report Tuesday by The Stadium said 73% of the football players at the University of Idaho don’t want to play this fall. Locally, the St. Vrain Valley School District announced on Tuesday the start of its academic year would be held online-only, with the Boulder Valley School District also announcing its plan to alter its previous online/in-person hybrid to online only. More pertinently, CHSAA announced that this fall’s football season (along with volleyball and boys soccer) will be moved to a March 4 start date.

If it’s not yet safe for 15- to 18-year olds to hit the gridiron, it isn’t for 18- to 22-year olds either, regardless of the economic fallout. At this point, there is no way college football games can kick off Sept. 26 without it being a blatant ode to profits over people.

It has been nearly five months since the pandemic shut down NCAA athletics. Now, less than two weeks from the proposed start to preseason football camp, there is more disarray and uncertainty than ever. Shut it down, go back to the drawing board, dream it all up again.

Shelving the football season, or at least pushing things ahead to give some sort of spring schedule a shot, would allow for deeper forward thinking in regards to basketball. Redirect all the time and resources being spent trying to save a doomed football season into saving college basketball.

Conferences could begin mitigating the damage from a lost fall football season by forming some sort of per-conference bubble plan that might allow basketball to tip off. Last month, CU men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle said many coaches were waiting to see what transpired with the NBA bubble the league created in hopes of completing their 2019-20 season. So far, the NBA experiment has been a success. Unfortunately, any potential college basketball plan likely would be more akin to Major League Baseball, which isn’t hosting fans but nonetheless is endeavoring on semi-normal, city-to-city traveling. Already the truncated MLB season is on the verge of collapse after coronavirus outbreaks among the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals.

Trying to implement a conference-by-conference basketball bubble system would be immensely challenging. Maybe not impossible, as it would be for football due to the sheer size of the teams, yet it would take great sacrifice from players and coaches and staff members alike, all of whom would probably have to physically disconnect from families for months. Student-athletes have grown accustomed to online classes anyway since March, and certainly the price tag for such an ambitious endeavor would be a hurdle too difficult for many low-to-mid major programs to overcome.

I get it, college kids are going to be college kids. A bubble system is more likely to fail than at the pro level. But it’s time to start thinking way outside the box if we want to see any significant NCAA competition in 2020-21. One thing I found interesting about the CHSAA 2020-21 plan was the moratorium on all athletics between mid-October and Jan. 4. Obviously that doesn’t exactly translate to the NCAA, but it was a creative approach to buying time while mitigating exposure. For football, instead of continuing to push back the season kickoff, a more outside-the-box idea might be to schedule four games in November and December, then four more in January and February, with a semester break lull in between that could double as a scheduling cushion for the first set of games. Sure, it’s fewer games overall, but it buys time and offers flexibility. Tag an expanded playoff at the end of that, perhaps coinciding with the return of March Madness, and NCAA athletics could enjoy a memorable return to the spotlight.

If the football experiment has shown us anything, it’s that essentially just waiting and hoping things return to normal, regardless of testing and attempted quarantine protocols, isn’t going to work. Yet the NCAA Board of Governors on Tuesday again passed on holding any vote regarding fall championships, though president Mark Emmert promised an update on fall sports on Wednesday.

A bubble system for hoops, at least at the college level, is a bold idea. And one probably destined for failure, too. But it still beats that wing and a prayer.