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Carlson: Here's the one reason college football may not be able to plan its way through a pandemic

Kentucky's Josh Ali (82) catches a touchdown pass in a 2018 win against Louisville. The SEC's conference-only scheduling decision during the coronavirus pandemic wiped out any hopes of saving four in-state rivalries against ACC opponents. [AP Photo/Bryan Woolston, File]
Kentucky's Josh Ali (82) catches a touchdown pass in a 2018 win against Louisville. The SEC's conference-only scheduling decision during the coronavirus pandemic wiped out any hopes of saving four in-state rivalries against ACC opponents. [AP Photo/Bryan Woolston, File]

College football is doing its darnedest to have a season.

Some folks think such a thing would be foolish or dangerous or both, playing a collision sport during a pandemic. Others think a bit of normalcy would be grand. Still others land somewhere in the middle, wanting games and safety in equal measure.

But regardless of what you think about the possibility of college football, you have to wonder if it will all be for naught anyway, if all the making of plans and devising of protocols will fall by the wayside because of one significant but uncontrollable variable.

The college part of college football.

As the calendar flips to August, we are reminded students are soon to return to campuses across the country. They’ll be moving into dorms and apartments. They’ll be going to parties and bars. They’ll even go to class eventually.

And if past situations like this are any indication, they’ll be spreading the coronavirus.

That likelihood is something college football absolutely cannot plan for much less prevent — and that has to be a colossal concern.

Players from the Southeastern Conference who met virtually earlier this week with members of the league’s leadership and medical advisory board are absolutely worried about it. An audio recording of the private meeting was obtained by The Washington Post, and in it, players voiced particular concern about what happens when their universities reopen.

Texas A&M linebacker Keeath Magee II cut to the heart of the issue at one point during the call.

“I feel like the college campus is the one thing that you can’t control,” he said.

He’s absolutely right.

College football programs, by and large, have been doing a good job of keeping the coronavirus at bay during summer workouts. This past week, for example, OU, Texas, Baylor and Kansas were among Big 12 schools reporting no new cases.

Of the programs that have seen significant outbreaks, LSU and Rutgers among them, many have traced their outbreaks back to players going to bars or parties. They made poor decisions by willingly walking into high-risk situations.

But college football players everywhere will soon be walking into high-risk situations.


When classes start, the student side of the student-athletes will kick in. Players will have to go to psychology class or biology lab, and they will be around students who might not be making great decisions during the pandemic. Maybe they went to Campus Corner the night before. Perhaps they spent a few hours on The Strip over the weekend.

Even players who have bought into doing the right things not only for themselves but also for their team may end up sitting next to COVID Cindy or Virus Vince.

I know colleges and universities that have decided to have in-person classes are going to do everything possible to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Smaller classes in larger spaces. Less contact. More sanitizing. Better ventilation.

But the start of classes will mean an increased chance college football players will be infected.

To this point, they’ve been in something of a bubble. We know, of course, what a true bubble looks like. The pro soccer leagues in the U.S. started using them first, and now, the pro basketball leagues have followed suit. Teams stay in hotels. No one ventures out. Everyone gets tested regularly. College football doesn’t have anything as locked down as that.

And yet, during these summer months, teams have largely had their campuses to themselves. A smattering of international students have remained, and a few other teams have returned, but in many instances, with no summer school classes under way, football programs have been on a bit of an island.

Paradise erodes when classes resume.

Frankly, I suspect that’s part of the reason why we’re seeing some Power 5 conferences delaying the start of the season. Even as four of the five conferences have opted to eliminate nonconference games, three have pushed back season openers. The ACC’s first games will be the week of Sept. 12 while the Pac-12 and SEC won’t play before the week of Sept. 26.

The Big Ten has yet to announce its start date, and the Big 12 will meet Monday to determine its plan moving forward.

Delaying the start of the season is a risk because it reduces the runway schools have to get in games, but the plus side is, it gives the football programs the better part of a month to see how having students on campus and players going to class affects their coronavirus numbers. What will they need to do differently? How much more might they need to test?

No one knows.

All the planning to this point has been admirable, all the attention to detail, all the hours of work. But even with that, the reopening of campuses may scuttle everything. It might prevent college football from planning its way through a pandemic.

Cross your fingers, but don't hold your breath.

Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or Like her at or follow her at

Jenni Carlson

Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football... Read more ›