The growing frustration of Southeastern Conference football fans, trapped between the two options of “play” or “don’t play” are understandable. Hopes have been raised, then lowered, over the past five months. The optimism of May is long gone and may have made for the extra pain of disappointment, should there be no football, Some people were taking victory laps at Memorial Day, as though the coronavirus was going to concede defeat in the “war” against it. But for the virus, the concept of “defeat” doesn’t exist. No concept does. It will carry out the mission for which it does exist: moving from one host to another as long as it can, which means until it is destroyed (let’s hope that Tuesday’s positive news about a possible vaccine is a breakthrough) or loses its capacity to spread.
If the world were a pristine and well-funded laboratory, the decision would already have been made. But the world runs on another principle: if there is a bag of money at the top of a tall tree, someone will either climb the tree or chop it down, always. So at the moment, the administrators of college football — mainly the Power Five Conference commissioners are still trying to figure out how to climb the tree, to collect the money that keeps their leagues — and the entire enterprise of college athletics — viable. I’m not sure those commissioners ever wanted that kind of make-or-break power over the season, but government apparently isn’t going to make any decision in the matter, the NCAA is powerless and the leagues are what is left.
The SEC would probably like more than two weeks to make a decision, but that is the allotted time to make the call on football, a span dictated by the logistics of playing the game. There are still various options on the table. Conference-only play has its attractions, not because you run a greater risk of contracting a virus at a non-conference game or because you reduce long trips. (Have you ever driven from Gainesville, Fla., to Columbia, Mo.?) The allure of conference-only play is that it allows for streamlined decision making based on regional conditions and, if things in America get worse, it lets the conference decide when to pull the plug on the season.
There might be an option for an Ivy League-model spring season, but that would be a compromise with chaos. The best NFL prospects would all check out as soon as the fall season was cancelled to start on their pro careers, That might mean a couple of players, plus some seniors, at Rutgers or Rice. At Alabama or Ohio State or LSU, it might be 15 or 20 players, either seniors or draftable juniors. What would be the squad limit in the spring? Would you play December signees as raw rookies with little preparation? Would you shorten the spring season to avoid a bone-crushing schedule of 25 potential games in a calendar year?
Options do remain. Time is disappearing.
“The direct reality is not good and (neither is) the notion that we’ve politicized medical guidance of distancing, and breathing masks, and hand sanitization, ventilation of being outside, being careful where you are in buildings,” a weary Greg Sankey said on Monday. “There’s some very clear advice … You can’t mitigate and eliminate every risk, but how do you minimize the risk? … We are running out of time to correct and get things right, and as a society we owe it to each other to be as healthy as we can be.”
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt