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Leistikow: Why 'I don't know' remains a good answer about college football's return

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central
Gary Barta met with Iowa media via a Zoom call Thursday.

Gary Barta opened a Zoom call with media Thursday by issuing 18 minutes of opening remarks, a reflection of the extensive background and complicated caveats the Iowa athletics director wanted to provide ahead of the possible return of college football this fall.

During those comments, Barta pivoted to a photo that recently surfaced from a 1918 Georgia Tech football game, during the outbreak of the influenza pandemic that killed an estimated 500 million people worldwide. In the 102-year-old photo, men on concrete bleachers are wearing fedoras atop their head and masks to cover their mouths and noses. (In most cases, only inches of social distancing were observed — far fewer than 6 feet.)

“I doubt we’ll come back with the fedoras,” Barta said. “But I could see people wearing masks throughout the stadium. Maybe everybody will wear masks. I don’t know yet.”

This undated photo shows a Georgia Tech home game during the 1918 college football season, with fans wearing masks in the stands as the Spanish flu pandemic struck the United States in two waves.

About that quote …

“I don’t know” is an answer that should be applauded right now, and Barta was up-front and clear about that throughout the 55-minute call. He is correct. It’s too early to be making definitive announcements about a football game scheduled for Sept. 5.

We don’t know what’s around the corner in the global COVID-19 pandemic, especially as states and businesses have opened up across the country. There are nearly 100 days until Iowa’s scheduled opener against Northern Iowa. As Barta pointed out, it’s been less time (2½ months) since COVID-19 implications canceled the NCAA basketball tournament.

A lot has happened, good and bad, in 77 days. A lot can still happen in the next 77.

We don’t know.

Those who have studied their history know the Spanish flu struck with one wave in January 1918. The second wave hit in September and was far deadlier.

“If anybody tells you they know the answers to all these questions surrounding football, 1) They’re probably selling you positivity; and 2) They’re mostly guessing,” Barta said. “And that’s OK. The theme is nobody really knows when and how it’s exactly going to unfold. That said, there are several things that (seem like) steps forward. The states are opening up. There is more access to testing. I think we’re learning more about the treatments.”

There was a later quote from Barta that I thought was on point.

And it has to do with how fans will be welcomed back to Kinnick Stadium.

Barta’s hope is to have no restrictions to fan capacity at Kinnick. But that seems like a very unlikely scenario.

I’ll jump in here and say that 20% to 25% — crowd sizes in the 15,000 range — would seem to be both optimistic and realistic as I type this in late May. Welcoming partial crowds is probably a realistic best-case scenario. No matter the crowd size, Barta wants to have an explicitly communicated plan to every fan ahead of the first game.

And then, he said, it’ll be up to the fan to choose how much risk he or she wants to take in coming to Kinnick.

I would be a proponent of temperature checks at the gate; anyone who tests high can be sent home with a refund.

I would also support staggered entry times for fans, as well as enforced social-distancing in concession and bathroom lines … and communicate as such to fans.

Although Barta isn’t ready to share specifics until there’s a hard number on attendance capacity, those things shouldn’t be controversial.

OK, here’s the quote I referenced.

“We’re looking for ways to mitigate the risk of contracting the virus. We’ll communicate the things we’re doing, and we’ll be transparent about the things we’re doing to mitigate,” Barta said. “Then it’s going to come down to individual choice. Fans are going to have to decide, ‘Do I want to go or not?’”

A Tigerhawk logo is pictured at the 50 yard line while construction continues during a media tour of the north end zone, Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa.

Also Thursday, Iowa clarified a big question about tickets.

If season ticket-holders aren't comfortable signing up for tickets in 2020, can they still retain their 2019 seats in 2021?

The answer is yes. Associate athletic director Matt Henderson said in an email to the Register that a decision was made in recent days that seats that are not renewed will not be available to others via Iowa's seat-upgrade process that begins June 8. Instead, those seats (if there's unlimited capacity) would be held open for mini-pack and single-game purchases, thus making them available again in 2021.

Is it possible that some Big Ten teams can play on Sept. 5 and others can’t?

Possible? Sure. Likely? No.

Michigan president Mark Schlissel raised eyebrows recently by saying that “if there is no on-campus instruction, then there won’t be intercollegiate athletics, at least for Michigan.” However, Barta shared that he meets with Big Ten Conference athletic directors and commissioner Kevin Warren daily, and he said the league is in lock-step with each other — even as some campuses are opening at different times.

“They share these same ups and downs that I do every day,” Barta said. “I think everybody is preparing similarly to what I described.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.