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Slow road back for college football
NCAA Football
In this April 25, 2018, file photo, NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis is viewed. The coronavirus pandemic has triggered fears of an economic meltdown on campuses around the country. - photo by Associated Press

While professional sports leagues can ponder plans to isolate their athletes from the new coronavirus and have them play in unusual, even secluded places, college sports have no such option.

Pro sports leagues can get creative with solutions to save their multibillion-dollar businesses. College sports will take a slower road back.

“The most at-risk sport of starting up again, in my opinion, is collegiate athletics,” said A.J. Maestas, the CEO of Navigate Research, which consults with professional sports leagues and college conferences. “There is less of an incentive and less alignment with the ultimate mission of the entity they work at, live at. That fund them.”

The commissioners of the 10 Bowl Subdivision conferences made it clear to Vice President Mike Pence last week: There cannot be college sports played if campuses are not open. If university leaders do not deem it safe for students to return to classrooms and dorms, locker rooms and practice fields will also remain closed.

As big as the business of college sports is it is dwarfed by the business of higher education. For example: The University of Alabama's budget in fiscal 2018 was $1.03 billion. Its athletic budget in 2018-19 was $164 million.

“You think of all the stakeholders and constituents in the collegiate space and all the missions they’re meant to serve in. This sports thing is like 3% of their budget,” Maestas said.

Colleges and universities, for the most part, have been quicker than governments in enacting measures to slow the spread of the virus. They sent students home, extended spring breaks and shifted to online classes weeks before widespread bans of large gatherings and stay-at-home orders by governors and mayors.

Even before the NCAA canceled its basketball tournaments and spring sports March 12, schools were shuttering campuses.

Fast forward to the fall, when the hope is many businesses and routine parts of daily life will be operating again, even if not back to business as usual. That doesn't mean colleges will be rushing to get students on campus. If they were first to shut down, they could also be among the last to reopen and it will be university presidents, not the NCAA, making those decisions.

Schools would take a significant financial hit by continuing to operate online only, but balance that against the legal and ethical liability they could face by being the catalyst for reigniting an outbreak.

“I think they do have to be conservative in how they approach this,” said attorney Tim Nevius, a former college baseball player and NCAA investigator who now represents and advocates for college athletes.

If, come September, the students are physically going back to school, even then there will be hurdles to clear for football to start.

"Large gatherings of people are going to be the last thing we check off the box,” Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said last week when asked about Ohio State football games.

So play without fans?

“It isn’t appropriate for us to play college football without fans. If that were the case, it would mean there would be major reservations about group gatherings,” Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips said on the Paul Finebaum Show, echoing a sentiment that is also becoming popular among administrators.

Commissioners and athletic directors have stressed the importance of collaboration across conferences and starting any season at once. But the public health crisis is not playing out the same everywhere. Within 24 hours this week the president of the University of Connecticut said he was personally pessimistic about the return of fall sports while the University of Missouri System president Mun Choi said he expects in-person classes to resume this fall.

In professional sports, players are well-paid and unionized. Essentially, they are business partners with the leagues. Players have to sign off on any return-to-play plan, and they might be motivated to take some risk to get paid.

In college sports, the relationship between the players and the schools, administrators and coaches is almost paternal.

“In framing it that way it restricts athletes' rights,” Nevius said. “So it prevents them from being considered employees. It reduces their economic rights. It frames things so that the athletes also think that they are in this caretaker environment so they have to rely upon the coaches and the schools to advance their rights.”

“But that is not always the case with the big business of college sports," Nevius added.

Later this week, the NCAA is scheduled to reveal some details of a plan to begin allowing college athletes to be compensated for use of their names, images and likenesses. The earliest it would go into effect is 2021-22.

Yes, college football players with professional aspirations have much to gain by playing. But not paychecks. And their scholarships are good whether they play or not.

“College sports are theoretically intended to exist to enhance that academic experience of its athletes," Nevius said. "And the NCAA repeatedly says that publicly and in defense of lawsuits as well. We’ve seen over time decisions made that completely contradict that. This is another test with respect to that philosophy.”