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Surprise: We may see NCAA football this fall

Ohio Stadium

Written off as a loss cause by many a month ago, we’re now down a path that could see the 2020 NCAA football season actually happen with a full slate of games, as universities are planning fall openings that coincide with the football season.

Take, for example, this news out of Notre Dame University. Earlier this week the school announced changes in the fall-semester schedule, welcoming students back to campus the week of Aug. 10, two weeks earlier than originally scheduled. In addition, Notre Dame will forgo fall break in October and end the semester before Thanksgiving. Many other major colleges, including the University of Alabama, have being more cautious in their announced similar fall schedules, while others, like Clemson University, are a little more cautious in their approaches—though the clear intent is still a fall opening.

One stated rationale for this shifting of the fall schedule: It allows universities to open during a window bracketed by the current COVID-19 outbreak and an anticipated second wave of cases in December, which is usually when we see a seasonal flu outbreak. 

But there’s no denying that an early August-Thanksgiving fall-semester schedule also allows for the playing of the 2020 NCAA football season, along with other team sports. 

It’s not been formally announced, but a vote from the NCAA Division I Council on Wednesday is a first step in allowing football, men’s and women’s basketball student-athletes back on June 1 through June 30 for voluntary workouts, ending a shutdown on campus athletics enacted in March. This is not a done deal. The return of student-athletes requires a whole slew of conditions to be met, including an abundance of testing, approval from local officials, university officials and conferences. More discussions on a plan that also includes social-distancing guides for student-athletes are already underway.

Once there’s a plan to return to campus, the next step will be a plan to accommodate fans for the 2020 NCAA football season. Unless there’s a miracle vaccine breakthrough by then, you’ll probably see either empty stadiums or sparsely populated stands come Aug. 29, when competition begins. Every major pro sport is looking at a summer and early fall with competition played sans fans, and college football won’t be an exception. But televised college sports will open the financial spigot both for NCAA schools and broadcasters, and an Ohio Stadium crowd of 20,000 is better than empty stands: it’s highly unlikely we’ll see the usual crowd of 100,000 fans crammed into the horseshow to cheer on their Buckeyes. Right now Ohio social-distancing guidelines would allow for a crowd of 20,000-22,000 at Ohio Stadium, and potentially 50,000 if social-distancing guidelines were relaxed.

Everyone craves a return to normalcy after a few months of stay-at-home guidelines, but normalcy is not just a day or two away. Launching a 2020 NCAA football season will be entertaining, to be sure, but it can’t be done at the expense of student-athletes or coaches, so protecting them will need to be foremost on everyone planning list.

Photo of Ohio Stadium courtesy Ohio State University.

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