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Overreaction Monday: NCAA, College Football Plagued by ‘‘What Ifs”

With the uncertainty surrounding coronavirus, the NCAA and college administrators are facing some difficult decisions with potentially dramatic impacts on the sporting world for years to come.

Minnesota v Iowa
Bruce Harreld sparked some controversy with his June 1st comments.
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

University of Iowa president Bruce Harreld raised some eyebrows a little less than two weeks ago when he proclaimed the hope was for Iowa football to be back in action on June 1st. That would be fantastic news for anyone in the state of Iowa, not just those of us hoping to attend college football games in Iowa City this fall.

But alas, it is just a hope. I hope to win the lottery and turn this ““work from home” thing into a ““anything but work” from home thing. Neither is likely to happen.

As it stands, there are 19 days between us and June 1st. There were just north of 550 cases in Johnson County, home of Iowa City, as of yesterday. At a little under half a percent of the population, that doesn’t sound dire. The population, however, is currently about 30,000 people short of normal. Those 30,000 additional people will be coming from all over the world, not just the country, when they’re allowed back on the University of Iowa’s campus.

There is no vaccine for COVID-19. There is currently no treatment proven to treat it. The only way to effectively slow its spread is to distance those infected from those not.

It’s for those and other reasons that Oregon’s governor announced last week the state would not allow sporting events with fans through September. That’s without any sort of setbacks as existing social distancing protocols are relaxed. The timing of any such relaxations will vary widely from state to state and even city to city.

That brings about an interesting dilemma for the NCAA. In a world where the NCAA theoretically has control over when individual schools can open for athletic activities, do they restrict schools in states that are back open from having athletes gathering? That would jeopardize millions of dollars in football revenues. On the flip side, allowing some programs to begin practicing or even playing again would provide incredible advantages in recruiting and finances, likely pressuring administrations into decisions they otherwise would not have made.

What if you were a coach at a program in a state which has relaxed social distancing policies? You’re now free to get your student-athletes back on campus for workouts with the strength coach and soon you'll be able to have full-fledged practices. The NCAA has left it to each school to decide when to return to normal recruiting activities and now you have a chance to be the only school on that 4-star running back’s short list where he can visit. That’s a hell of an advantage.

What if you’re a 30-something up and comer in the coaching world and the NCAA has decided each school can decide when to hit the recruiting trail again. You’ve seen the statistics and you aren’t concerned about catching the virus. What choice does that leave a 60-something coach with chronic bronchitis? Is Coach B going to choose his personal health over his program, or is he choosing some 17-year old high schooler with a Twitter addiction and a sweet Hudl video over his and his family’s health?

There will be very difficult choices being made not just daily, but hourly by a slew of coaches, administrators and prospects when things reopen. Everyone has their own opinion on the risks and they’re entitled to them, but those opinions will drive decisions that have profound impacts. Those with little concern will gain immense advantages on the recruiting trail being open for business while other schools are stuck in the dark. Recruits wiling to visit campus are going to rack up more offers than those with no new film or camps to lure in coaches. Those who have more concerns will lose ground.

And that’s just on the recruiting trail. Consider the development that typically occurs for the Iowa Hawkeyes during he offseson. Chris Doyle was able to get some of that work in this spring before things really went sideways, but the summer is a critical time for student-athletes, especially younger ones, to develop and fill out their bodies. A lot of that happens in Iowa City on a strict regiment with the strength and conditioning staff. That isn’t happening this summer in all likelihood.

Incoming freshmen aren’t getting those early crucial hours getting their bodies prepared for life in the Big Ten. They aren’t getting the extra time to acclimate to life away from home for the first time. Those that enrolled early didn’t get the extra reps in spring ball (although some schools did, yet another advantage to some).

Kirk Ferentz and Chris Doyle have indicated on multiple occasions they would prefer 8 weeks to prepare for any sort of football season. That would include two weeks of purely strength training and conditioning with six weeks of football practice. When we get into late summer, there will be a significant divergence between states which are reopening and those that are not. Some programs will begin fall camp. Their players will be installing offenses, watching film and getting in live reps. They’ll be in the weight room with the staff and they’ll be building comradery with their teammates. Others won’t.

Whether or not we have football this fall, there will be winners and losers based on decisions being made throughout the summer and early fall.

Those winners might not be just individual prospects or coaches or schools. We’ve seen bits and pieces floated over the last week or so indicating it may be entire conferences which win or lose.

Within the Big Ten, there are a handful of schools which are more likely to be behind any reopenings compared to their peers. Maryland, Rutgers, Northwestern, Illinois, Michigan and Michigan State are all located in states with much more severe outbreaks than what we’ve seen in Iowa or Nebraska, for example. While the conference could theoretically move forward with a modified conference slate that didn’t include the Illinois schools, Maryland and Rutgers (and let’s be honest, a 9-game round-robin with everyone else would be pretty enjoyable), does anyone envision a world in which the Big Ten moves forward without mighty Michigan?

It’s not happening. Especially not with only 8 teams.

But what about the SEC? Bearing in mind the #StickToSports and no politics mantras, those are programs in states much more likely to reopen sooner rather than later. In a conference with the natural advantages of home grown talent and added benefits of, well pushing the boundaries, being one of the few conferences recruiting, practicing or playing on TV in front of millions of sports-starved fans looks like another MASSIVE advantage that could be heading their way.

What about a conference like the Mountain West, with schools largely in states which are highly rural and more likely to reopen with lower case counts, much like the SEC. while the MWC isn’t a power dive conference with all the advantages of the SEC, it’s pretty easy to see the advantages they could gain by being one of a handful of conferences playing this fall. The TV dollars would be through the roof. Ditto the national exposure. Recruiting would likely take a noticeable tick up due to both of those and the simple fact that prospects want to play - as in football.. this year.

Perhaps the biggest “what if” out there in regards to a return in some form this fall is “what if the NCAA tried to stop a conference or three from playing?” Again, it’s pretty obvious that aside from the unknown health impacts, there will be massive edges gained by those who move forward with football this fall if others are forced to move more slowly. What if the NCAA tried to step in and stop the imbalance? Would the SEC and MWC or anyone else simply stand down, or would the money and competitive edge to be gained push them to simply leave the NCAA’s purview?

It’s not a totally outrageous scenario. With the dollars on the line, it’s a lot more plausible than you might think at first glance.

The thing about all of these “what ifs”, is that we won’t really know the risks until after the fact. We are learning more and more about this virus and it’s impacts every day, but it’s impossible to accurately predict the full impact of bringing student-athletes back to workouts until we see it happen. We can’t accurately predict the full impact of colleges playing football, even without fans, until it’s done. And by then the results are baked in. It only takes one player to test positive for it all to come crashing down.

What if it was your kid?