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Bob Bowlsby: ‘If we’re not in college, we’re not having contests’

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Professional sports may happen with quarantined teams and no fans, but the NCAA has to keep up the appearances of amateurism.

NCAA Football: Big 12 Media Days Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

During a Wednesday conference call that featured Vice President Mike Pence and the College Football Playoff Management Committee, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby shared the bottom line on playing college sports again after the coronavirus pandemic forced the cancelation of the NCAA tournament and spring sports a little over one month ago.

“Our players are students. If we’re not in college, we’re not having contests,” Bowlsby said, according to CBSSports.com.

”Our message was, we need to get universities and colleges back open, that we were education-based programs, and we weren’t going to have sports until we had something closer to normal college going on.”

The sober take from Bowlsby is necessarily divergent from efforts to restart MLS or play a shortened baseball season.

Major League Baseball has already floated a plan to play games and spring training stadiums in Arizona while housing players at hotels. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has become a household name during the pandemic as the nation’s leading expert on infectious diseases, agreed on Tuesday that extensive COVID-19 testing for athletes and empty stadiums will be the necessary conditions for any sports this summer.

For Bowlsby and the other leaders in college sports, the key thing is to avoid saying the quiet part out loud, like Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy did last week when he discussed players returning to campus before other students.

“They are 18, 19, 20, 21 and 22 years old and they are healthy and they have the ability to fight this virus off. If that is true, then we sequester them, and continue because we need to run money through the state of Oklahoma,” Gundy said.

Gundy’s remarks, of course, made a mockery of the continued efforts by the NCAA, a non-profit that nonetheless creates incredible profits, to brand its student-athletes as amateurs.

In an effort to maintain that tax-exempt status, Bowlsby and other leaders around the country are attempting the balancing act of understanding the monumental need to play college football at some point — Power Five schools could reportedly lose $78 million on average if the season gets canceled — while also recognizing that sports can’t happen unless students return to campuses.

Perhaps there could be college sports without fans in the stadiums, but it’s simply not possible to adopt a model like those pushed now by Fauci and professional leagues to test and sequester athletes while playing games for television audiences.

“It’s just hard to figure out how you can say, ‘We believe the campus isn’t safe for our student body, and oh, we’re going to bring one group of students back,’” said Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So the first necessary condition for having the college football season is to find some way to safely return students to campus. Logistically, given the continuing shortage of tests, that’s a challenge even for Major League Baseball to handle with several hundred players locked down in hotels.

For schools located across the country in a range of areas suffering from disparate effects of the coronavirus and under disparate leadership, the challenges presented by schools having a fall semester on campus are even more significant.

With the possibility of multiple waves of infections, particularly with the likelihood that SARS-CoV-2 could be seasonal like other coronaviruses, there may be multiple waves of lockdowns — students could return to campus in August only to have to leave again in October.

Getting back to some semblance of normal on campuses in small college towns like Ames or Manhattan may be much easier than in a larger city like Austin.

Since there are so many unknowns at this time, the current plans for a college football season are all over the place, ranging from playing without fans to delaying the season until as late as February to reducing the number of games played.

In California, large gatherings will likely remain banned until there is a vaccine or herd immunity, which could take 18 months, so that’s not a positive sign for having any college sports with fans until potentially the 2021 football season.

Two things are clear, however — students have to be on campus taking classes for sports to happen, even if the stadiums are empty for games, and athletic departments can’t afford for the football season not to happen.

Schools have already started cutting sports programs, including men’s soccer at Cincinnati this week and six sports at St. Edward’s in Austin on Wednesday, as Group of Five programs seek relief from the NCAA to save money.

So a lost football season would dramatically reshape college athletics.