College Football During the Coronavirus Era

By: Jeremy Young'24

College football has become a pastime in many parts of the country. Rivalries that stem back hundreds of years. Incredible moments that will be remembered for generations. In many ways college football is some people’s way of life; it is bigger than a sport. People would get up on Saturdays and head over to tailgate or to have a barbeque with their friends as they watched the big game. Crowds of upwards of 100,000 would pack into stadiums to support their team. Obviously everything has changed from coronavirus, but college football remains as an escape to many people. The time when people can forget about the world around them and just enjoy the game. For athletes in many places around the country, college football is their only chance at receiving a quality education at the collegiate level. The impact that college football has on people and on the universities who use it as a huge source of income for their athletics programs both from selling tickets and from TV deals is huge, which is why many universities were quick to try to play their seasons. Today we will be looking at how the college football season has gone from a COVID standpoint, how many of their plans have changed as they year progressed, and how universities have responded to outbreaks within their teams. 


As the summer began it became increasingly apparent that the upcoming school year was going to be very different. Universities and conferences were faced with a few different choices. They could outright cancel the season (as many smaller conferences did, the PAC 12, and Big 10 did, much to the chagrin of their players), they could delay their season and as a result shorten it and only play in conference (the SEC), or they could continue their season as per usual, (Big 12 and ACC). By late summer, 76 of 130 Division 1 programs were planning to play with 54 canceling their seasons according to Stadium Network. Almost immediately many teams protested their conferences' decisions to cancel their seasons preemptively. Nebraska was the most vocal of these teams, their coach Scott Frost saying, "Our University is committed to playing no matter what, no matter what that looks like and how that looks. We want to play no matter who it is or where it is." Players also voiced their concerns about canceling the season, with star Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields making a petition that received over 250,000 signatures within a day. Soon the situation became political as Republicans, most notably President Trump, voiced their support to play the football seasons. As the year began, many schools caved in from the pressure they were facing. By late September, 127 teams were planning on playing with 76 already playing and the rest to return within the coming weeks. 


One of the problems college football teams faced was getting enough players to compete. The SEC guidelines state, “Teams will need at least 53 scholarship players to compete.” But because many players opted out of the season and because of covid cases on the team, teams were scrambling to get 53 scholarship players. These guidelines were similar to those of the BIG 12 except they only allow 53 players counting both walk-ons and scholarship athletes. If the team cannot meet this mark, they can postpone the game or play. While it may seem easy to have 53 scholarship athletes it turned out to be much more difficult. Missouri for example started the year off down 12 players from opt outs and as the season goes on and there are more injuries, the number of players will continue to fall. This past weekend, Mississippi State played with only 49 scholarship players due to the recent covid outbreak within their team. Many teams have tried to adapt to this by switching players to other positions to fill in spots. 


As the year progressed and more and more teams began play, outbreaks began occurring within teams. According to the NCAA’s tracking list, over this last weekend many games were canceled as LSU, Texas A&M, Maryland, Mississippi State, and Missouri faced outbreaks. Cal, Arizona State, Utah UCLA, Charlotte, Gardner-Webb, UAB, North Texas, Miami of Ohio, Ohio,  Louisiana Tech, UL Monroe, Wyoming, Air Force, Memphis, Navy, Arkansas State, and UTEP all had games canceled or postponed within the last two weeks. This along with Wisconsin who had been dealing with a large outbreak for two weeks prior and Pittsburgh pausing all team activities and Florida Atlantic University canceling their whole season. Next week, November 21, over a dozen games were canceled or postponed. These cancellations have proved costly for many teams, for example Wisconsin was declared ineligible for the Big 10 championship game because of cancellations due to outbreaks both inside the program and cases in teams they were playing. Despite these major setbacks, most teams are continuing their seasons. 


Another topic of controversy related to college football has been fans in the stadium. College football teams' decisions on fans in the stadium coincide with the state's laws related to large gatherings. Most of the teams in the southeast are allowing around 20 to 25 percent capacity which allows between 15,000 to 20,000 fans. Big 10 teams located in the midwest and PAC 12 teams located on the west coast are not allowing any fans for games. Schools such as Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Vanderbuilt are only allowing family members of the team to be present at the games. Early on in the season, many people watching the games were alarmed at the lack of social distancing and mask wearing at the games. For example, on October 3rd the entire SMU student section was kicked out of the game against Memphis by the Dallas police according to the Dallas News. Another incident similar to this happened at South Carolina late in September after their game about 300 students got together after the game. According to the Press Herald, “ Several parties and large gatherings coinciding with the University of South Carolina’s football game had to be broken up Saturday, as people celebrated the first game of the season.” As the year progressed mask wearing and social distancing were better enforced by schools and fans were removed if they failed to cooperate with the rules. Then, on November 8th, after Notre Dame beat Clemson in the biggest game of the year, fans stormed the field in celebration completely disregarding coronavirus guidelines. This was a major blunder for the NCAA who up until this point seemed to have the fan guidelines mostly under control. While no cases have been reported because of this, all of the fans were forced to be tested and quarantined.

With COVID-19 on the rise it is important for college football teams to take the protocols seriously and to have a plan when cases arise. On the sidelines, coaches are required to wear masks at all times while players do not. Early on in the season some coaches were seen visibly not wearing their masks such as Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach, Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruit, and Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher. All three of these coaches were in the SEC, so the SEC commissioners office gave them warnings saying they would be given a $100,000 fine for each week. The guidelines for testing in most of the conferences are that players are tested three times a week and once a player tests positive they must wait 14 days and test negative three times. Conferences that started their seasons later such as the Big 10 have more stringent restrictions that include testing before every game and practice and quarinting for 21 days once diagnosed with it. 


College football is also incredibly important for a college’s income. For reference, college football brings in more revenue than the next 35 other sports at a division one level. According to the NCAA, the average Power Five school (five major conferences) make over 78 million dollars annually which makes up over 60 percent of the schools total operating revenue. An entirely canceled football season would wipe out all of the TV revenue the team makes. If there had been no college football season it would total to 3.3 billion dollar loss and have a major impact on the future of the universities and their athletic departments. College football also has a major impact on other sports. Each college has 85 scholarships for football. Since both men and womens sports need to have the same amount of scholarships given, the women's sports get 85 extra scholarships. If the football revenue loses money they may have to cut back on the scholarships given which would then affect the women’s sports as well. 


While many people are very excited about this college football season, which has already seen some incredible moments, it is important for everyone to remember that the players, coaches, and staff safety is most important. And while it would be great for this year to continue and to finish with a national champion it is far more important that the players and coaches are able to stay healthy and free of the coronavirus. College football has been a real help to many people during these depressing times; an escape from the rest of their lives and the world around them, lets just hope we can keep it that way.