Will College Football Return if Students Can’t Return to Campus? Conference Commissioners Weigh In

Multiple conference commissioners told Stadium that student-athletes would not be prevented from returning to campus to play football this season if classes are limited to online-only instruction.

This is a dramatic shift from just a few weeks ago, when many college administrators indicated the general student body would need to return to on-campus classes in order for student-athletes to participate in college football. Those decisions – whether to play if the campus is closed to general students but open to student-athletes – ultimately will be made by the individual school presidents or chancellors.

“Going to class in an online sense is satisfactory,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “There’s room for that to happen. School has to be in session, student-athletes have to be going to class.”

This is the latest in a number of potential obstacles to playing in the fall that have evolved over the last few weeks and now have more clarity. The No. 1 obstacle: the health and well-being of the student-athletes.

Just how far have these potential obstacles evolved? A month ago, the general consensus among administrators was that there needed to be alignment among all conferences and schools to play in the fall. Now, five of the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) conference commissioners – including three from autonomous Power Five leagues – also said their respective conferences likely would play football this fall even without all of their league members.

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Would schools play football if general students do not return to campus?

Last month, Bowlsby was quoted saying students would have to be on campus to allow the season to be played. He said he was referring to student-athletes needing to take classes – either in-person or online – in order to compete.

Dozens of university leaders have recently said their schools “plan” or “intend” to hold campus classes in the fall. However, sources at several of those same universities said they won’t definitively know if students will be on campus for at least a couple of months because of the uncertainty of COVID-19.

ACC Commissioner John Swofford said different schools may have different versions of campus studies in the fall. He said playing football while student-athletes take exclusively online courses is “a question that has to be answered” by his presidents.

“Given the circumstances, you may have varying situations of what an open campus means,” Swofford said, “what a new normal is. That’s part of identifying all the different questions. There are a lot of possibilities and hypotheticals that will be answered in due time as needed.”

American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco said the complexities behind any decision “should be subject to serious discussion.”

“What if, with virtual (online) classes, you could protect football players, staff and others, why couldn’t they play?” Aresco said. “That’s something that needs to be discussed. I would suspect our campuses would want to play, but it would be up to the presidents and chancellors. We may not get the entire (student bodies) back.”

Added Conference USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod: “Assuming all health and safety protocols were met, that would be a university decision (whether to play with general students not on campus) of which we would not interfere.”

Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said he would not favor student-athletes playing football if they were the only students on campus. However, he said he would if “at least some students are back on campus.”

Scott said he also doesn’t believe “not all students” would be required to return to campus to play football because of the “new normal.” Several college administrators have said universities could implement “hybrid models” by combining more online studies with fewer campus courses.

A Power Five athletic director, who was granted anonymity, is adamant that a football season could be played without the general student body on campus.

“Why can’t you play football on campuses that are closed?” the athletic director asked. “If classes are being offered online, there is no restriction on where you complete the course work. You would need an easily-administered COVID-19 test that is available to every athletic department. Test the student-athletes, coaches, trainers and support personnel to make sure that your cohort is free of virus. Quarantine the cohort for practice, online classes, food service and leisure time activities. This would be a very safe environment.

“Many of our athletes were taking a significant portion of their credit hours online long before the virus showed up. The only difference would be an empty campus, theoretically an even safer environment.”

Several college sources admitted that potentially having only student-athletes on campus playing football would not be a “good look” for the schools, considering the outcry that student-athletes should be compensated in some fashion.

“You can’t have student-athletes back in competition without general students back on campus,” a Group of Five athletic director said. “That’s not a good look and a lot of liability that the presidents and chancellors shouldn’t make alone.”

However, the same athletic director admits “if at least ‘some’ general students come back, then that opens the flood gates to return to college competition.”

Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said his league has no consensus on whether to play without students on campus. “We’ve discussed it,” Thompson said. “But have not reached a decision.”

MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said in that scenario, the decision would be made by his league’s presidents, and it’s too early to make any conclusions either way.

The three remaining FBS commissioners: Greg Sankey (SEC), Kevin Warren (Big Ten) and Keith Gill (Sun Belt) declined repeated interview requests.

Would a conference resume play without all of its members?

Swofford, Bowlsby and Aresco all said that if a majority of their conference schools can play, they believe their respective conferences would play football this fall.

“I suspect if the majority of schools can play, then they should play,” said Swofford of the ACC. “It’s on our radar. We’ll cross that bridge later. Hopefully we won’t be in that situation.”

Added the Big 12’s Bowlsby: “It’s not practical to make everyone wait and not play just because of one school in one vicinity.”

Aresco, of the American, said he has a sense in talking with his league’s athletic directors and presidents that “if we had nine or 10 (out of 11) that could play, it makes sense we would play without those remaining schools. Even the schools that couldn’t play wouldn’t want to hold up the entire group.”

Aresco said the league has not reached an official decision on whether to play without some of its conference schools.

With the varying degrees of COVID-19 across the country, one possibility is some areas of the country would be able to play in the fall, while others couldn’t for health and safety reasons.

Bowlsby said it’s possible some conferences could play, even if not all 10 leagues could compete. Last week, Sankey, of the SEC, told Jacksonville radio station 1010 XL’s Matt Hayes that “there is room for different conferences to make different decisions.”

“It’s not inconceivable at all,” Bowlsby said, “that they could be playing in the Big Ten and not the Pac-12, or we’re playing in the Big 12 and they’re not playing in the SEC. Conferences will work together, but we’re not pledged to be in lockstep.”

Scott, of the Pac-12, said it’s “very, very highly unlikely” that the Pac-12 “would start a season without all (members) playing.”

“If we want to play a full season, want bowl games and the College Football Playoff, we all have to move together,” Scott said. “We have to agree on the same system.”

Thompson (Mountain West), MacLeod (C-USA) and Steinbrecher (MAC) said it’s too early to know if their leagues would play without all members.

“I know this,” Thompson said, “it’s been discussed on nearly every athletic director’s call we’ve had in some fashion.”

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