What will college football look like when it returns — and is it even smart to play now?
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What will college football look like when it returns — and is it even smart to play now?

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A view of the empty stands inside Clemson Memorial Stadium on the campus of Clemson University on June 10, 2020 in Clemson, South Carolina. The campus remains open in a limited capacity due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

A view of the empty stands inside Clemson Memorial Stadium on the campus of Clemson University on June 10, 2020 in Clemson, South Carolina. The campus remains open in a limited capacity due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images/TNS)

We're desperate for football scores, right? But shield your eyes from this one, dear readers.

CORONAVIRUS 27, FOOTBALL FANS 3

That's how last week felt as optimism from the likes of Auburn President Jay Gogue - "We're going to have football this fall" - got pummeled by the reality of positive COVID-19 tests at Clemson, a canceled game (the 31st Southern Heritage Classic) and Dr. Anthony Fauci warning, "Football may not happen this year."

Fauci's warning came a day after I tweeted that a source high up in college athletics said it's 50-50 at best that football is played this fall. We also talked about a slimmed-down schedule.

There's so much ground to cover here, it requires the efforts of the Tribune's two college sports writers. So I ask you, Shannon Ryan, for your initial thoughts, starting with this: Given that America is in the grips of a pandemic, do you believe it's worth it to try to have a season?

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Shannon Ryan: When the Jazz announced Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus on March 11, it shook sports enough that league after league followed the NBA's lead to suspend play. We were both at the Big Ten Tournament when the conference pulled players off the court. It was a responsible reaction that signaled to the rest of the nation we should take this pandemic seriously.

More than 2.3 million Americans have been diagnosed with the coronavirus and more than 122,000 have died. Eight states on Saturday reported their highest single-day case counts since the pandemic began, while new infections surpassed 30,000 on Friday and Saturday, according to the Washington Post. These were the nation's highest daily totals in more than seven weeks.

So what has changed so drastically that colleges are shifting from sending athletes home to shelter in place with their families to allowing athletes to return to campus for voluntary workouts? Why are some even toying with the idea of having a college football season when there's no proof this can be done safely?

Money, of course.

Capitalizing on sports fans' boredom seems easy, but evidence is pouring in that this experiment is not only a foolish pursuit but a dangerous one.

Houston canceled voluntary workouts after six football players tested positive. Alabama, Auburn, Florida State and West Virginia are among dozens of teams to report cases. LSU quarantined 30 athletes to contain the spread. It's safe to assume most colleges that welcomed back athletes are following similar safety protocols.

This isn't working even with the most precautionary procedures in place.

I also find it revolting that after weeks of Black Lives Matter statements, colleges are using sports rosters with majority Black players as pandemic guinea pigs.

Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney have been vocal about getting players back on campus and games underway, conveniently ignoring the pandemic but acknowledging the financial gain that college athletes bring to their universities as "amateurs."

It's too soon to pretend away the facts about the coronavirus - and the evidence seems to be in.

Teddy, do you see any way games can be played safely, protecting players and staff?

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Teddy Greenstein: So true about money. It's driving all of this. Campuses are reopening because schools are worried that parents won't write the tuition checks for virtual learning. And schools are scared to give college football the Heisman stiff-arm because up to 80% of their athletic departments' revenue goes poof.

I believe it's worth it to try, starting with having athletes return to campus for workouts. Test, quarantine and see where we are in four to six weeks. I buy the argument that these are strong, healthy athletes unlikely to be seriously affected by a positive result. But maybe I'm being selfish because I'm thirsting for college football to return.

More realistic: The NFL returns and is played on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. America is entertained. Those athletes are pros who need to play to get paid. I can see where they would be willing to narrow their lives and spend all their time at home or the football complex.

How can you ask the same of a college athlete who needs to go to class and live in a dorm or apartment with others? Bubble life would not work. And your point about the demands of Black athletes is a compelling one.

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Ryan: If this virus infected only those willing to risk it, I'd be on board with that. UCLA athletes already expressed their belief the university is putting them at risk and prioritizing the sport over their lives. Sports don't exist in a vacuum.

We've seen numerous cases of healthy athletes in their prime contract the coronavirus. One infected athlete can spread the virus to many.

I'm further worried about the message it sends. Athletes are societal and cultural influencers. College football games resuming in the fall would signal that life is back to normal. And too many Americans are already willing to trick themselves into believing this - ditching masks, packing bars, gathering with friends.

There are many logistical concerns to consider as well. How do you see scheduling playing out?

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Greenstein: The only thing I'll predict is that we won't get a conventional one - 12 games in 13 weeks, plus the postseason. The college football official I spoke with said it would be a "herculean" task just to get healthy players on the field. The concept that it can be done over a season-long stretch that includes a week off and, for some, a return home for Thanksgiving is as realistic as "Space Jam."

Other factors: Testing is expensive, with some schools committing up to $2 million to identify the infected. And Fauci warned that baseball should conclude (if it ever starts) by October because cold weather could promote a dastardly second wave.

Does it make sense for Illinois to open against Illinois State, Connecticut and Bowling Green? No way. Those schools will have different testing procedures. Can UConn be trusted after its athletic department lost $42 million in 2019?

Similarly, Northwestern probably should not play Tulane, Central Michigan and Morgan State, even if that means buying out the games for six or seven figures.

The Big Ten should tear up its schedule and start over: Try for 10 games over 10 weeks (or eight over eight), followed by the Big Ten title game. Presidents and chancellors will meet virtually starting Thursday to discuss options.

Forget about a so-called spring season. Draftable players want to use January and February to prepare for the combine. And you cannot ask 18- to 22-year-old players to suit up for two seasons in one calendar year.

Shannon, what's your thought?

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Ryan: Limited travel and a condensed schedule should lessen outbreaks, but is that enough to proceed? We're seeing outbreaks among athletes working out in the most restrictive atmosphere possible. What will happen when players start interacting with more students on campus, then traveling for games and interacting with more staff, opposing players and game-day personnel?

I hope I'm wrong, but it's hard to imagine numbers won't go up, despite encouraging news from some teams such as Notre Dame, which announced only one positive test. Athletes are part of a community they can infect and be infected by - no matter how much we long for them to entertain us.

I know some won't be happy with Mayor Lori Lightfoot's decision to ban fans at spectator sporting events in Chicago or Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker's phase four guideline that limits seating to 20% capacity. But it will make the games safer.

How do you think teams such as Illinois, Northwestern and Northern Illinois should handle fan attendance?

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Greenstein: You and I are waaaaay too classy to joke that 20% attendance should be the goal for Illinois, NU and NIU football games even in normal times. Glad I got that out of the way.

I am really curious about schools such as Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State. Will there be an appetite to attend games if fans have to wear a mask? If tailgating is limited? If concessions are affected? And what about public bathrooms? Would the vast majority be content to watch from their living rooms?

Students should get the first crack at tickets. Then suite holders because someone has to pay the bills. And then faculty and staff. And let's hope they can crack the windows in the press box.

Bottom line, I think college football will reflect our nation as a whole: There's no national policy, just elected officials making rules as they debate the health of our people versus the health of our economy. COVID-19 cases in the Midwest have sharply declined while they're on the rise in the South. And yet the SEC sounds determined to play while there's hesitation in Big Ten country.

Penn State coach James Franklin suggested last month it would be OK if only certain Big Ten teams choose to play. Northwestern President Morton Schapiro, who chairs the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors, indicated to ESPN it would be all 14 or none. Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren said the conference has not ruled out either.

There's no one in charge of college football. And that's part of what will make the lead-up to a season so intriguing.

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

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