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Peterson: College athletes will be invited back to campus. Now begins the tricky part of all of this.

Randy Peterson
Des Moines Register

College football and basketball players have been green-lighted to start voluntary workouts on campus between June 1 and June 30. What happens, though, if a student-athlete, let’s say it’s a football player, deems it too coronavirus-unsafe to return to campus. Does he risk losing his scholarship?

Probably not, considering this first wave of returning is just voluntary, and the workouts won't include head coaches, position coaches or footballs. The sessions will be overseen by the strength and conditioning staff. They'll be more conditioning than fundamentals.

But what happens if mandatory replaces voluntary at some point this summer? What happens if a student-athlete still is so unsure about a return to campus and the locker room and the field being safe enough that he decides to stay away a while longer?

Does he run the risk of forfeiting his scholarship for 2021?

Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz and Iowa State Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell each are leading top-25 teams into the 2019 college football season. Iowa is ranked 19th in the USA TODAY Amway Coaches' Poll, with Iowa State coming in at No. 24.

College athletes don’t have a ton of say at the decision-making table, although there is a NCAA-Student-Athlete Advisory Committee. They're not unionized.

So what happens?

That's among the multitude of questions college administrators will have to address as they seek safe ways to get college athletics up and somewhat rolling again.

If athletes are told that mandatory practice has officially started sometime this summer, and they decide to lay low out of concerns for their health — are they on their own, financially?

Highly doubtful during the June 1-31 part. No one can force a student-athlete to partake in something that’s voluntary. No coach, none, will put a player or even a staffer in an unsafe working condition. There's too much at stake. They will understand.

What about when practice for the opening of the season gets real? What about when practice officially opens, and a student-athlete is still wary about returning — what happens to his scholarship then?

"I don’t think a kid who felt that way would lose a year of competition or scholarship opportunity," Tim Day, Iowa State's faculty athletics representative, wrote in an email to the Register on Thursday.

Could they take online classes and skip sports for a year, while still maintaining a scholarship? Maybe figure out a way for the NCAA to make it a red-shirt season?

And then there's this: Replace COVID-19 with mental health.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, "the outbreak of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) may be stressful for people. Fear and anxiety about a disease can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children."

How's that translate to college athletes?

Last January, the NCAA surveyed 22,000 student-athletes on a variety of topics, including mental health. This line was big:

"Student-athletes continue to be impacted by mental health challenges."

Colleges generally try to help student-athletes suffering mental health issues. They don't yank their scholarships.

Conference and school administrators have multiple conference calls daily. They're not just checking up on each other. They're trying their darndest to figure ways to safely get a football season started.

As Iowa State Athletics Director Jamie Pollard told fans Wednesday night on a virtual Cyclone Tailgate Tour function, “If football isn’t up and running, we may be in a world of hurt.”

He's not alone in that thinking. Athletics administrators are on calls throughout days and nights. Things change daily; sometimes hourly. As hard as they try to stay ahead of what's happening, it's next to impossible.

Conference administrators and college presidents will decide when and if a return to football happens, and there’s also the local government component.

In Iowa, I would presume this would be contingent on Gov. Kim Reynolds allowing something like this. Wednesday, she said high school baseball and softball teams can start practicing on June 1.

A former athlete herself back in the day at Interstate 35 of Truro (anyone remember Kim Strawn?), our governor knows athletics and what it takes to prepare for competition.

Using that background, and the way Iowa has been gradually re-opening, I would suspect she wouldn’t have too many qualms about college football players starting limited and voluntary workouts sometime next month on Iowa's college campuses.

Iowa State columnist Randy Peterson has been writing for the Des Moines Register for parts of six decades. Reach him at rpeterson@dmreg.com, 515-284-8132, and on Twitter at @RandyPete. No one covers the Cyclones like the Register. Subscribe today at DesMoinesRegister.com/Deal to make sure you never miss a moment.