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Overreaction Monday: Football is happening, but at what risk?

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In Thursday’s Zoom call with the media, Gary Barta made it clear football is happening in the fall but was unclear what it would look like

Northwestern v Iowa
Simpler times when two people could be this close without masks
Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Over the course of May, my perspective on what Saturdays in the fall would look like changed drastically. I went from thinking there was no chance football would happen en masse in September to considering it an absolute lock we would see games.

It means too much to the Ponzi scheme that college sports is for football to continue as close to normal as possible. Plus, the math increasingly says it is very unlikely for a student-athlete-aged patient to pass from the disease. The latest CDC numbers put the mortality at 0.1%. For context, the expected number of deaths if every Big Ten scholarship football player got it, one or two players would be expected to die. Well, 1.19, to be exact.

This is a risk the decision makers are willing to take. (Note, the players are not decision makers)

As we move along, athletic directors are making their plans. Last week, Jamie Pollard had a press release which read like part-public health policy/part-sales pitch to Iowa State Cyclones season-ticket holders. They were capping attendance at 50% until further notice, allowing fans NOT to renew until 2021 while still holding their seats, and implementing “mitigation measures” for gameday atmosphere.

Now, there’s plenty of reasons for over 8,000 tickets not currently renewed - underwhelming 2019 season vs. expectations, no Iowa Hawkeyes on the schedule, generally crappy weather luck, etc. - but the uncertainty of what gameday would look like PLUS the sentiment that they might get pushed out even if they renew may be part of what’s holding ISU’s renewal rate back.

There are economic and execution reasons to implement the restricted attendance policy. It allows Pollard to lock into the budget revenue of 30k butts in seats and affords Iowa State time to plan where those fans can sit to maximize social distancing. It also allows fans to self-select out if they view the risk of attending a game too high. Win-win-win.

Though initially ruled otherwise, it was a position Gary Barta aligned Iowa to last Thursday if capacity is capped, “It might be a financial concern, it might be a health concern. But what we’re going to do, if we have to interrupt the seating at all in 2020, we’ll go back to 2019 as a starting point, and everybody going into 2021 will have the opportunity to renew the same seats.”

Easy win.

Since already over 50% of capacity, their plan remains as it always is: maximize revenue by setting the goal of filling up Kinnick Stadium to capacity. Fans are well behind the normal pace of renewal, with just 65%-70% signed up for 2020 despite a two-month extension, so some of it is sorting itself out.

But as we see Iowa trying to max out Kinnick, they’re doing what they can to minimize the Hansen Football Performance Center. There will be restrictions in and out, screening, and triaging employees, among plenty of other changes. Barta even reasserted the allegedly voluntary nature of these workouts in an interesting bit:

If we have a student-athlete who chooses not to return, they will still remain in good standing with their team. We will work to mitigate the concerns that they raise. But we would not have a student-athlete during this year, if they felt they couldn’t compete or train because of this COVID-19 virus, they would not lose their status or their scholarship.

So there is the through lines personal choice and risk management on this.

But the irony of selling as many tickets as possible still sticks in my craw, especially when considering of the impossibility of managing social distancing within Kinnick’s concourses or enforcing masks throughout the stands to limit super-spread events.

None of this accounts for when, not if, a student-athlete contracts COVID-19. According to CDC guidelines, even “asymptomatic cases testing negative should self-quarantine for 14 days.” So if Julius Brents contracts it somehow, develops symptoms and tests positive, does that mean all defensive backs also need to self-quarantine since they share close quarters vis a vis the position meeting room? Does Iowa now have to play two games without DBs?

To say nothing of controlling 100 college kids by making them “sign a pledge of expectations as it relates specifically to this virus.” I mean, the only way any school could execute that is a “Revenge of the Nerds”-style dormitory on the practice football field.

So while Barta’s time with the media simply confirmed the answer to the biggest question was, “Yes, football is getting played this fall,” it raises plenty of other questions regarding the well-being of athletes, coaches, and fans.

Obviously those don’t need to be answered right now because with time comes information. Yet the inevitability of college football elevates the inevitability of something going terribly, terribly wrong. While the pledge is ridiculous, at least the student-athletes have a common cause and math on their side.

But what about the thousands of fans who come from nearly every part of the state, throughout the region, and are at higher risk than the players they’re watching? Do you trust them to do the right thing to limit the risk of spreading the virus at Kinnick and other stadiums throughout the country?

I sure don’t.