Trump, coaches push for college football season; cracks emerge
President Donald Trump on Monday joined a U.S. senator and a number of coaches calling to save the college football season from a pandemic-forced shutdown as supporters pushed the premise that the players are safer because of their sport.
There was speculation two of the five most powerful conferences — the Big Ten and the Pac-12 — might call off their fall seasons and explore the possibility of spring football.
The Mountain West became the second conference in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivison to do just that, joining the Mid-American Conference in giving up hope on playing any sports in the fall. Farther east, Old Dominion canceled fall sports, too, becoming the first school in college football’s highest tier to break from its league; the rest of Conference USA was going forward with plans to play.
A Big Ten spokesman said no votes on fall sports had been taken by its presidents and chancellors as of Monday afternoon, and the powerful Southeastern Conference made clear it was not yet ready to shutter its fall season.
“Best advice I’ve received since COVID-19: ‘Be patient. Take time when making decisions. This is all new & you’ll gain better information each day,'” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey posted on Twitter. “Can we play? I don’t know. We haven’t stopped trying.”
A growing number of athletes have spoken out about saving the season, with Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence among a group posting to Twitter with the hashtag WeWantToPlay. Trump threw his support behind them Monday.
“The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled,” the president tweeted.
That didn’t help the Mountain West, which announced that all fall sports including football were postponed.
Old Dominion dropped out earlier in the day. The Virginia school, a relative newcomer to major college football, canceled fall sports less than a week after C-USA set out a plan to play a football season.
“We concluded that the season – including travel and competition – posed too great a risk for our student-athletes,” ODU President Broderick said.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh took a different stand, saying the Wolverines have shown that players can be safe after they return to school. He cited Michigan’s COVID-19 testing stats, including 11 positives out of 893 administered to the members of the football program and none in the last 353 tests.
“I’m not advocating for football this fall because of my passion or our players desire to play but because of the facts accumulated over the last eight weeks since our players returned to campus on June 13,” Harbaugh wrote.
Nebraska coach Scott Frost made similar claims and said if the Big Ten doesn’t play, that might not stop the Cornhuskers.
“Our university is committed to playing no matter what, no matter what that looks like and how that looks,” Frost said.
“We want to play no matter who it is or where it is.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican, picked up on the safer-with-football theme in a letter to the presidents and chancellors of the Big Ten.
“Life is about tradeoffs. There are no guarantees that college football will be completely safe — that’s absolutely true; it’s always true,” he wrote. “But the structure and discipline of football programs is very likely safer than what the lived experience of 18- to 22-year-olds will be if there isn’t a season.”
Michigan’s situation falls in line with what many medical staffers are seeing on their campuses.
“We’ve seen it spread thus far within roommates and outside of our facilities primarily. We haven’t seen a lot of spread within athletic facilities themselves,” said Dr. Kyle Goerl, medical director at Kansas State.
Doctors and epidemiologists outside of college sports are less convinced that big-time college football programs decrease the risk of getting and spreading COVID-19.
The number of confirmed infections in the U.S. is more than 5 million, the most in the world.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said only an NBA-type bubble can really protect college athletes more than the general population and keep the season from being disrupted by the virus.
“If we’re going to try and minimize the risk of the virus, it’s really that the setting of the country as whole is the issue, not really actually the sport,” said Adalja, a member of the NCAA’s COVID-19 advisory panel.