D’Angelo: Fate of college football season will be decided in next few weeks

By Tom D'Angelo
Palm Beach Post
Cincinnati Bearcats fans storm the field after the 27-24 win against the UCF Knights, Friday, Oct. 4, 2019, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati.

The fate of the entire college football season could be determined in the next few weeks.

And we are not off to a good start.

College campuses are filling up, not like they once were with students having the option of remote learning, but much more than we’ve seen the last two months, or since some athletes returned for informal workouts.

Campuses have mostly been ghost towns since March, when the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in waves. But with many of our leaders ignoring the warning signs, things are worse now than they were five months ago in most areas. Still, students are anxious to return to campus and anxious to socialize after being shuttered in their homes for an entire spring and most of the summer.

And that anxiety is tenfold for coaches and administrators.

What coaches and administrators saw in recent days had to be alarming. Large groups of mask-less students gathering in the streets, attending parties, carrying on as if it were 2019, when life was so much different, so much simpler.

One photo drew a reaction from officials and must have Nick Saban ready to storm campus and confront and belittle every student in his path ... in other words, treat them as if they were members of the media.

But it was Tuscaloosa mayor Walt Maddox who took to social when the photo of Alabama students, nearly all not wearing a mask and acting as if they had all flunked Social Distancing 101, went viral.

“Why? We are desperately trying to protect @tuscaloosacity - We are trying to have college football season. We have been running details for 3 straight nights. @TuscaloosaPD is stretched thin between COVID-19 and these details. We will be requesting daytime help from #UAPD.”

Maddox’s plea sounded of desperation. And it was. Alabama football is essential to the Tuscaloosa economy. Mix in a few football players with the crowd and there goes any chance of having a season.

The quickest way for the SEC to pull the plug on a fall season is for its signature program to suffer an outbreak and shut down. If that happens, the SEC shuts down, then the ACC and Big 12 follow and right behind them would be the three Group of Five programs attempting to forge ahead – AAC, Conference USA, Sun Belt.

“The challenge to our young people is going out in the community recognizing not everyone will be able to follow the guidelines,” Miami Hurricanes coach Manny Diaz said. “We can’t be around policing them when they are not in our building. Since mid-June I am proud of our test results, which suggest they’ve done the right thing when they’ve not been with us.”

But mid-June is not mid-August.

Classes started Monday at Miami. Florida State and Florida Atlantic are a week away. Florida students return in two weeks.

Florida opened fall camp Monday. Miami, FSU and FAU have been at it for more than a week.

Still, the players have been on campus for a long time and although it’s not a “bubble” as defined by the NBA or NHL, these players have been somewhat sequestered among themselves, shuffling from facility, practice field and residence with no temptations from the rest of the student population ...

Until now.

This is when players will be tested, and discipline will be required far beyond their commitment to the playbook.

And this is when the stress level and concerns of coaches far exceeds whether they are two-deep on the defensive line.

Every coach had to take note of what happened last week at Oklahoma, and probably with an exasperated, helpless feeling. Sooners coach Lincoln Riley gave his players a break when it became apparent the start of their season would be pushed back and allowed them to return home for a few days.

When the team returned, nine players tested positive for COVID-19.

This can be looked at in two ways: Those who believe the biggest reason to play the season is because players are safer in their football “bubble” can say “I told you so.” Then, there is the part that these players did not take the necessary precautions to stay safe when away from the team and around others.

The same situations they now face as students return and they face peer pressure to hang with their friends.

“Disappointed about the news, obviously,” Riley said. “We’ve done such a tremendous job really this entire time. Certainly, you know when you give your players some time, there is risk in that.”

Riley said more than 75 percent of the team did not leave Norman when he gave them a break. What’s not known is how those nine players contracted the virus.

Spikes have occurred across the country as students returned. One week after in person learning, the University of North Carolina is switching to on-line classes this week after four clusters (five or more cases in close proximity) of outbreaks. At Oklahoma State, 23 members of a sorority house tested positive last weekend.

All of this is a warning, as is the fact that all of these players wondered if their seasons were doomed last week when the Big Ten and Pac-12 pulled the plug.

If nothing else, that moment should have hit every player like a blindside tackle from the toughest, meanest player in the country that nothing is guaranteed, and the season could be shut down at any moment.

If that does not scare these kids into realizing their actions the next few weeks outside the football facility will determine if they need to continue to use that facility, nothing will. @tomdangelo44