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WATCHING FOOTBALL: College Football and COVID

Can we have a season? Yes. Here's how.

If you haven’t been living under a rock, you know COVID-19 cases are rising nationwide. The percentage of positive tests – the best method for tracking coronavirus community spread – shows especially large spikes in California, Texas, and Florida since mid-June. 

The virus’s sudden resurgence has the media panicked and top scientists sounding the alarm. Governors are rolling back reopening and mandating masks. Businesses are partially or completely closing, again. 

Some of you wonderful readers probably think this is an overreaction, especially because deaths aren’t significantly rising and the healthcare system isn’t overwhelmed. Some of you probably find this new spike in cases troubling and want renewed nationwide lockdowns. Some of you are probably in-between.

Regardless, our institutions pay attention to these things, and if there’s one thing institutions absolutely LOVE to do, it’s limit their own liability. 

A computer science professor recently estimated that if college football starts as planned, about 30 to 50 percent of athletes will get the COVID, and three to seven players will die. Now you’re probably thinking: “This guy isn’t an epidemiologist. Why should I take him seriously?” That’s a good question!

But it doesn’t matter. Because trust me, the NCAA already is.

COVID has come home to roost in college football. From Clemson to Oklahoma to Kansas to Alabama to Texas, countless high-profile programs have tested their athletes, and many initially found positive cases in the double digits. 

Any intelligent person would expect those numbers to drop until/unless the school year starts, because many teams have the facilities to keep their athletes distanced and isolated during summer workouts and meetings. Players have already begun recovering. And thankfully for them, studies show that young people are asymptomatic more often than other age groups.

So now the college football community is pondering how best to address the pandemic – and if a season should even be played. I think it should. And I think it’s possible to do so without putting players or personnel at needless risk.

Aside from the tried-and-true methods of disinfection, social distancing, and mask-wearing, here’s three different ways to make college football playable in (sorry for the hackneyed phrase) these crazy times.

1. Let players and coaches sit out games without penalty.

Look, I don’t mean to go all Governor Cuomo, but one college football player dead next season would be too many. So even if you think it’s unlikely anyone dies, we should consider the worries of players with existing health vulnerabilities or athletes who simply think playing would be too dangerous.

More than most sports, football is about assumption of the risk. Players choose to bang into each other at high speeds with the knowledge that they could easily get hurt if something goes wrong. I trust these players to do what’s right for their own health and safety. 

By giving players (and coaches) the ability to elect to sit out any game they choose, without the possibility of NCAA or team penalties that could harm their futures and perversely incentivize them to do things they don’t feel are safe, morale would be raised sport-wide. It might mean some games get forfeited. But I fully expect buy-in at most major universities regarding the rigorous pregame virus testing systems sure to be in place. This way, we can satisfy every party involved – even the at-risk and worried.

2. Make every university class Zoom-optional (and maybe Zoom-mandatory).

Many programs are concerned their athletes will catch the COVID from fellow classmates in the general student population. But this risk could be massively mitigated with one simple school-wide change.

If universities chose to make all classes Zoom-optional – as in, students who didn’t want to physically attend could watch live class video and interact with the professor in real time – it would cut back on required student gatherings, decreasing infection rates among the student body. (Yes, limiting parties and off-campus gatherings would too, but some things may not be fully within the school’s ability to police.)

Not only would this pivot to online-optional classes benefit every college student, but circumspect coaches could decide to make classes Zoom-mandatory for their teams, making sure none of their players physically entered classrooms. A college football “bubble league” (like the NBA and NHL have embraced) is probably impossible and at least unwise, but this would be an excellent and doable step that could add some distance between players and other students.

3. Reschedule games to minimize travel – or as a last resort, play an innovative spring season.

I’ll admit, this last idea’s a bit out there. But if there was ever a time to embrace regional scheduling, it’s now.

Air travel can be stressful for the immune system. It’s a logistical hassle in an already loco moment. And many states have orders requiring incoming citizens of other, faraway states to quarantine, making playing games impossible.

So just this once, college football should realign, for a single season. Throw out the schedules as written, and create something like the divisions Pat Forde proposes here.

Forde’s plan maintains most existing rivalries, using ten regional blocks of twelve teams. All ten regional champs would make an expanded CFB Playoff, with two at-large bids, that would be seeded by the Committee and could be played in a “bubble city” over the athletes’ Christmas break.

But what if even that’s impossible? Maybe the virus spikes in the coming months, essentially ruling out a fall season for all the universities involved. What then?

As a challenge to established order, COVID is unprecedented. I mean, we’re voluntarily torpedoing our ability to do business in order to not spread it. But great stress can lead to beneficial innovation. No pressure, no diamonds.

College football needs a diamond-grade, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency type moonshot plan that could solve the vast majority of its problems in one fell swoop. Here’s my candidate, with apologies to the Ivy League.

  • Follow the ten-block regional system Pat Forde introduced, expanded CFB Playoff and all, to limit travel and lower everyone’s chance of contracting the virus.
  • Play a ten-week season in the spring, with one bye week for each team, and no bowl games outside of the CFB Playoff.
    • Week Zero: February 13
    • Championships: May 8
    • CFB Playoff Play-In Round: May 22
    • CFB Playoff Quarterfinals: May 29
    • CFB Playoff Semifinals: June 5
    • CFB Championship: June 13

A brisk, four-month season that still gives teams time to prep for next fall, while maximizing regional appeal and structural innovations that might serve as a blueprint for the future. Sure, it means the possibly resurgent XFL might get second billing, but they’ll manage, I have no doubt.


Let me end honestly. I think America’s dead tired right now. COVID, economic upheaval, social turmoil, endless doom-and-gloom – it’s way, way too much. It was too much months ago.

We need something that makes us cheer again, something nationwide, something unifying, something steeped in American tradition yet constantly new every year.

We need college football.

So I plead with you, NCAA. I plead with you, universities, coaches, administrators, student-athletes. Be bold. Be unafraid. Find a way.

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