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Sports Pulse: College football offseason programs are set to come back on time but at what risk? USA TODAY

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Brace yourselves for what is already a historic period in the college athletics world.

Football players are in the midst of voluntary conditioning workouts, and already in the last week:

  • The University of Houston suspended athletic activities because of positive coronavirus tests both among athletes and in the city.
  • Texas football players have said they won’t help recruit incoming players if demands geared toward supporting Black students aren’t met.
  • Iowa football is in the news, too, after about 50 former players claimed longtime (and now-former) strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle and other staffers made statements suggestive of being racially biased. Doyle’s gone, with a $1.1 million parting gift from Iowa. 
  • Ohio State players were asked to sign a "Buckeye Pledge" document that commits players to follow health-related guidelines — and the list could just be starting, as student-athletes return to campus during the coronavirus pandemic. Athletics departments rely heavily on money that football generates. It’s imperative in that respect that a safe and healthy season can be played. We can only hope this is not a way to avoid legal responsibility by the schools, as some fear.

And this just in: Monday morning came the news that two athletes — a swimmer at Arizona State and a women’s basketball player at Oregon — filed a federal antitrust lawsuit against the NCAA and Power Five conference. The suit, which seeks to be a class action, asks that the NCAA be prohibited in limited name, image and likeness opportunities for college athletes and seeks damages for television-rights money and social media income it claims have gone unearned due to current NIL restrictions.

Specifically, the athletes want to “void rules prohibiting compensation to college athletes for use of their name, image and likeness, and prevent schools from mandating athletes must wear only school-sanctioned apparel during games and official team functions.

So that's a couple hundred million at stake, at least.  

Our world is changing — and not just athletics

We’re living in a world of rapid change — off the field and on. We’re in a pandemic, as we all know too well. It’s already been a horrific ride — and I’m not even talking about sports, however in that respect ...

The comfort zone in which we viewed our college athletics — it’s changing and may never again be the same. Questions must be addressed — from concerns about the safety of practice and games to the should athletes get paid?

Is it fair to ask unpaid athletes to return to a campus that hasn’t yet been opened to the general student body? The question has been out there for a while.

Where's the fairness when schools are asking unpaid athletes to return to a closed campus and paying a coach $1.1 million to leave? People had that question about Iowa and its severance arrangement with their maligned former strength throughout Monday. 

“Our players are students,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told Vice President Mike Pence during a call with conference commissioners and other college football officials in April. “If we’re not in college, we’re not having contests.”

Absolutely, college athletes are students.

They take classes. They have academic standards to meet. They’re also expected to partake in workouts when the return-to-athletics phase starts in their respective sport. They’re essential to the financial welfare of schools and athletics departments.

Athletes are expected to be tested routinely for coronavirus. They’ve been educated. By now, they know proper health-related practices — it's been discussed nonstop since March.

Of 147 Cyclones football players tested before Monday’s start of voluntary workouts, two tested positive.

Eight other athletes in various sports tested positive. Iowa State hopes that the spread was limited because the athletes were not participating in team-related activities when they were exposed.

The University of Iowa has announced three positive COVID-19 tests, but didn’t say whether it was athletes or staff. 

Is an 'Ice Age' ahead? 

Schools are doing what they can to keep safe the student-athletes they need. Most football stadiums are likely to be at 50% capacity, if that. College administrators have been wrestling for months with figuring out a 2020 college model. They’ve still got time before football games start on Sept. 5 — but not much time, now that they are dealing with an athlete empowerment movement unlike anything they’ve seen. Positive coronavirus tests aren’t surprising (and you hope everyone in college sports who comes down with this illness is OK) — but how will the athletic departments manage it, that's a key question. 

"Tim Day, our faculty athletics rep, gave me a great analogy,” Iowa State athletics director Jamie Pollard said during an April conference call with reporters. “He said what we’re facing right now is one of three things: It’s either a winter blizzard that we hunker down for the weekend, it’s the farmer’s almanac predicting that we’re going to have a really hard winter, or we’re facing the Ice Age.

“I think we’ve all figured out that this is bigger than a blizzard. We’re probably in a phase right now that we’re in for a long, hard winter. But if we can’t play football this fall, it’s Ice Age time, because there is nobody in our industry right now that could reasonably forecast a contingency plan for helping to get through not playing any football games.”

It’s a two-way proposition: Schools need the athletes — and athletes aren’t, to my knowledge, turning down scholarships.

"Speaking for myself, it's a dream to play major-college basketball," said former Iowa State star Matt Thomas and a member of the Toronto Raptors. "You work your whole life to get to the top, but I also understand if some people feel the other way (about playing, while campus is essentially closed.)"

We probably haven’t heard the end of this debate. Or Monday’s antitrust lawsuit filed against the NCAA that could cost colleges many millions of dollars if a judge rules in favor of the athletes.

Buckle up. It’s going to be a wild ride.

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.

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