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NCAA President Says No Students, No Sports, but Commissioners Disagree

Big 12, ACC leaders and others say football could happen without full student bodies on campus

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby thinks it’s possible to have college football this fall if universities are still in online learning mode only.

But on Friday night, NCAA president Mark Emmert disagreed with that stance.

“All of the commissioners and every president that I've talked to is in clear agreement,” Emmert said. “If you don’t have students on campus, you don’t have student-athletes on campus.”

Emmert participated in an interview streamed Friday on the NCAA’s Twitter account.

A day earlier, however, Stadium reported that “multiple conference commissioners” told reporter Brett McMurphy that athletes would not be prevented from returning to campus if classes remained in online-only mode.

“Going to class in an online session is satisfactory,” Bowlsby told Stadium. “There’s room for that to happen. School has to be in session, student-athletes have to be going to class.”

So there seems to be a fundamental disagreement about what’s possible – or appropriate – at the top levels of college athletics.

Emmert said schools don’t need “to be up and running in the full normal model, but you have to treat the health and well-being of the athletes at least as much as the regular students. ... If a school doesn’t reopen, then they’re not going to be playing sports. It’s really that simple.”

University of Oklahoma interim president Joseph Harroz said Thursday during a regularly scheduled OU Board of Regents meeting that OU was set to begin a phased reopening of the Norman campus on Monday.

But while that’s a good first sign for the return of sports in the fall semester, it’s not necessarily the blueprint everyone is hoping for.

Different levels of infection in different areas of the country, varying guidelines from different agencies and a broad spectrum of state laws seem like a significant hurdle to getting universities on the same page.

“It’s unlikely everyone is in the same situation,” Emmert said.

Emmert and NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline said testing and tracing methodologies must improve before schools can resume playing sports.

Of course, resuming spectator sports goes deeper than just having students on campus and getting teams back together.

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“Just because there’s some regulation that’s been lifted doesn’t mean that automatically means you should immediately put 105,000 fans in a football stadium,” Emmert said. “I think that the proper thing to do and the sensible thing to do is a phased approach. It’s plausible to me that early in the season, let’s just stick with football, you see a very limited fan access, but by later in the season, as things develop, hopefully in a very positive way, you all of sudden can see larger fan bases attending.”

Emmert said if schools return to activities at their own pace, that will complicate the association-wide standard start dates. If student-athletes don’t have an appropriate acclimatization period, they shouldn’t participate, he said.

“We would much rather relax some of those competitive-equity issues than ever put a young man or young woman at risk, physically or mentally,” Emmert said.

“Will that mean that some school doesn’t play as full a schedule as another school and that may create some inequity in their ability to participate in a championship? Possibly. And we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there. … I’ll be delighted to have those debates later in the fall.”

According to Stadium, American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco sees a scenario where individual university leadership make the decision about sports on campus with no students.

“What if, with virtual (online) classes, you could protect football players, staff and others, why couldn’t they play?” Aresco said. “That’s something that needs to be discussed. I would suspect our campuses would want to play, but it would be up to the presidents and chancellors. We may not get the entire (student bodies) back.”

Conference USA commissioner Judy MacLeod echoed that sentiment to Stadium.

“Assuming all health and safety protocols were met,” she said, “that would be a university decision (with) which we would not interfere.”

And ACC commissioner John Swofford told Stadium that if enough schools in a conference enable guidelines that allow for the return of a football team and thus games, then that could be enough to have competition.

“I suspect if the majority of schools can play, then they should play,” Swofford said. “It’s on our radar. We’ll cross that bridge later. Hopefully we won’t be in that situation.”

And while having sports back in America would certainly be cause for celebration, Emmert offered continued trepidation about the future.

“The other scenario that we all are nervous about, but we certainly have to think through, is what if we have (another) outbreak,” Emmert said. “What if there is a flare-up in a community on a campus? What do we do then? How does the campus handle it? How does the fan base handle it? What do you do with your student-athletes? We’ve got just a little bit of time to think through all of those scenarios. Because that, too, is certainly plausible with 11,000 NCAA schools, 19,000 teams, half-million student-athletes. The arithmetic is not in your favor if you think you’re not going to have any outbreaks in that cohort. We’re working through all of these scenarios.”

Emmert guessed that any such decisions about resuming or reopening could be forthcoming in mid-June or even into early July.

But, just days after the Oregon governor said no athletic events with large crowds would be held in the state through at least September, Emmert seemed to caution against moving too soon in either direction.

“Let’s keep our priorities in place and recognize this is going to be a very unusual school year,” Emmert said, “and we just have to make the best of it.”