Commissioners Discuss Options for College Football Season

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — There are so many questions about the upcoming college football season right now and so few answers, even among the people who run their various college conferences.

So where are we?

Sports Illustrated Ross Dellinger and Pat Forde reached out to all 10 major college conference commissioners plus Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrink to get a feel for when football players might be able to return to campus, when practices might be able to start and what, if any, kind of football season we can have in the fall all around the country,

The leadership group expressed more optimism in a fall football season than ever before. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” says American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco, “and I am growing more optimistic daily that we are going to have a season and that we might even be able to start on time in the fall under certain conditions.”

Commissioners from the Power 5 conferences—Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, ACC and SEC—have met over conference calls each day for more than two months, they say, and those from the Group of Five talk at least once each week. As a full group of 10, they hold bi-weekly meetings. At its core, they’re attempting to salvage college athletics—namely their cash cow, the billion-dollar industry of football—amid a national shutdown.

To date, there are more questions than answers. “I feel like I’m at Grand Central Station,” says Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson, “and there are 10 trains leaving in different directions, and we don't know which one to get on.”

No matter their locale, the 10 commissioners of the college sports world's highest tier, the Football Bowl Subdivision, are in daily deliberations about how to save the 2020 football season in light of the pandemic.

While that's a trivial matter in the big picture, it is paramount to the United States economy and to sports fans across the country. This is a huge task that none of the sport's leaders were prepared to face, because nobody saw it coming.

“There is no playbook for this,” says Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott.

Closer to home, Purdue athletic department leaders have been in constant contact with Big Ten officials, and there is plenty of conversations taking place on campus as well as to how the athletic department can work with the university in the decision-making process.

Purdue president Mitch Daniels talked last week about his desire to get students back on campus by the fall semester. Several other Big Ten presidents have said the same thing. 

The Big Ten has been all sports activities through the end of May, and a decision is expected to be made next week about what to do come June 1.

What the commissioners are saying:

  • — On optimism of starting on time: “I would say I’m a little more optimistic today than I was two weeks ago. Some of that is having been on the calls with the White House. One of the things we heard is that it’s expected that testing nationally is going to double every month from now on.” — Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby
  • On when decisions can be made: "We've been dealing with this pandemic for about 50 days. I think after these next 50 days we'll know so much more. The next 45–50 days will be critical.'' — Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren
  • On bringing back players without other students on campus: "I hate talking in absolutes, but I can't see doing it. The students have to be on campus.'' — Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick
  • On some states acting as outliers: "September is a very long way away from where we are now, and we’re going to learn a lot more between now and then. I’d hope and expect the officials in Oregon will stay open-minded and let the data and the science and let the medical experts guide us.'' — Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott
  • On playing in the spring: "The longer you’d go into the spring semester the more complicated it gets in every way, including the athletes in our football programs that envision an NFL career, as well as playing a season into the spring and turning around, for those players coming back, playing another full season starting in September. It’s a huge hypothetical.'' — ACC commissioner John Swofford

Questions that commissioners weighed in on

  • 1.) Who’s going to make the decision to restart on-campus training?
  • 2.) When must decisions be made to begin on-campus athletic training and on whether to delay the season’s start?
  • 3.) Can you have on-campus athletic activities without students attending classes in person?
  • 4.) What if some schools can open and others, because of state governing orders, cannot?
  • 5.) Once football teams return to campus, what does pre-season football training look like—in terms of testing, practice schedules, etc.?
  • 6.) During the season, if/when someone tests positive, what happens?
  • 7.) Will fans be allowed to attend?
  • 8.) If you have a truncated season, do you play just conference games?
  • 9. ) If a season can’t be played in the fall, can it be played in the spring?

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