Hansen: Punting the college football season to spring is a good Plan B and a bad Plan A

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Are we there yet?

The backseat anthem that has driven seemingly every parent at some point in time to utter these words — “don’t make me pull this car over” — has a new, equally annoying sports world counterpart.

Is there going to be college football?

The best answer — at least by early July standards during the COVID-19 pandemic — is annoying in its own right: “I don’t know.”

The worst response AT THIS JUNCTURE may very well be: “Let’s punt college football ‘til spring semester.”

Maybe it becomes more viable in terms of options two weeks from now or in late August or even during an interrupted fall season. And every athletic director at the 130 FBS schools should have studied and vetted that model.

And put it back on the shelf.

There is no guarantee that it will be easier to protect student-athletes’ health —which should be the No. 1 guiding principle — with a spring semester start and finish to the season.

Not when ignorance and selfishness are two of the strongest contagions that have driven the coronavirus case numbers in the U.S. to the levels that made the spring season concept, fashioned in April, a popular summer recyclable.

There isn’t uniformity in the spring season proposals either. And all have logistical glitches.

I read one recently calling for a season start around New Year’s Day, which would get you to the end of the regular season by the end of March, presumably.

And while that might be palatable in some parts of the country, does playing week after week in freezing temps in the Midwest and Northeast seem like a healthy alternative for players or fans?

With a flu season overlay, and peak months for the flu being December through February?

It would also mean indoor practices, which are more conducive to viral spread than outdoors. The runway for the season, meanwhile, would somewhat mimic the timeframe for bowl prep (although expanded), but there’s a big difference in what’s required from an X’s and O’s standpoint to prep for a bowl game versus an entire season.

If you started in March and finished in May, that alleviates some of those problems, but creates new ones. Of particular concern is what effect having two full football seasons in one calendar year would have on the players.

Would there be physical and mental repercussions?

I posed that question to Notre Dame’s director of football performance Matt Balis, back in April, when the spring season concept was first being discussed and studied.

“That would be tough,” he said. “You’d have to make sure the guys have ample time for recovery. You’d have to make sure you’d have ample time to train them again before the season would start.”

Without delving into TV complications and economic implications, both pragmatic considerations, a spring season isn’t a bad Plan B. It’s just a bad Plan A.

In part, if therapeutics/vaccines aren’t ready and the spring season concept falls apart, there’s no backstop. And all those worst-case scenario stories you read about back in March about the economic devastation a year without college football could bring, would then merge with reality.

The most frustrating part about covering this thread of the COVID-19 pandemic the past four months has been how a quote gets hijacked and twisted in a headline and then barrels into the echo chamber that is social media.

So when the University of Arizona recently hit the pause button on bringing additional student-athletes to campus because of the high infection rate in the country that surrounds campus, in some stories it morphed into that Arizona had suspended the voluntary workouts of the 80-plus football players on campus.

Which wasn’t the case.

That in turn fed the notion that Pac-12 football was in trouble and that college football season as a whole in the fall might not be a feasible option. All of which could still happen — or not.

There was even a recent story in which the number of deaths of college football players was predicted (3 to 7) for a fall season, based on the death rate in the normal population in the college student age group.

But wouldn’t that number be lower based on the testing, contact tracing and other meticulous protocol put in place by schools across the country?

That’s another reason why “I don’t know” is the right answer, because inconsistent messaging about and inconsistent response to COVID-19 in this country make adding meaningful and lasting context to the numbers incredibly challenging.

What we do know is that sports, and even sports contact and with fans, can happen.

After delaying the March 28 start of its season, the KBO League — Korean professional baseball — has been playing uninterrupted since May 5 and with a very low tolerance threshold for taking a hiatus if needed.

A three-week league shutdown would be imposed if any member of a team tests positive for coronavirus at any point. So far there have been zero positive tests. And the plan is to bring back fans on a limited basis soon.

Rugby in New Zealand returned mid-June and with full stadiums and no social distancing protocols. And if you’ve ever seen a rugby scrum, you know that’s as snug as you can get with another human being in sports.

Now, South Korea has a population of 51 million, only about 16 percent of what the U.S. has, and New Zealand has fewer people (4.9 million) than Indiana (6.7 million), but it does go to show what is possible.

So too have the vast majority of the FBS schools so far with their summer workouts.

I’ve heard the Notre Dame players called guinea pigs, since returning to campus as a group for the first time since early March. But aren’t they less that and better off at a place where there’s a plan in place, supervision and resources available and a mission to make this work?

The Irish began voluntary individual workouts on June 22. The week prior one player out of 91 tested positive and none of the 50 staff members tested did.

Four ND players tested positive for the COVID-19 antibody, which means they’re believed to have already had and recovered from the virus.

If all proceeds as planned, required team activities begin July 13 and training camp kicks off Aug. 7, with the first day of fall-semester, in-person classes at ND three days later. The Irish are scheduled to open the season Sept. 5 or 6 at Navy.

“There’s an element of this that’s kind of like building an airplane as you fly it in that we’re learning so much more really every week,” said ND team physician Dr. Matt Leiszler roughly a month ago.

“Which in some ways is fantastic. We’re learning more about this virus and we can use it to help us to keep our players and our staff safe, but it’s a moving target at times. And so I think at this point, in a lot of conversations with institutions across the country, I think we’ve come up with a really good plan.

“But it’s going to change. I think everyone needs to be aware that what are best practices right now may be different come August or September, October. And we need to be willing to adapt, and that’s going to be the reality.”

It’s a reality that still needs to have a chance to breathe. For school officials to have a chance to learn and grow. For players to understand consequences of veering outside the team culture.

And maybe that all hits a dead end at some point. But that point in time isn’t now.

A football season starting in spring semester could mean more headaches for Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly than just having to wear his winter jacket more often.