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Peterson: Why opening up college football is like 'shooting at a moving target'

Randy Peterson
Des Moines Register

The message is clear: Be patient when wondering about the precise date fans will know what college football will resemble this fall. 

Everyone has an opinion about mitigating coronavirus spread in the football locker room, on the sidelines, in the stadium and in tailgating areas. Views vary on how many COVID-19 positive tests are too many, through the lens of considering whether to cancel a game or even a season.

For months, those questions and others have been focal points of virtual meetings among athletics directors, conference commissioners, NCAA officials, health officials and even ranking government officials. Getting college football running safely is essential to college financial bottom lines, and important to cities in which colleges reside.

That’s a fact, and so is this: There are no definitive answers or timelines right now in this changing world of a pandemic.

Iowa State head coach Matt Campbell, right, and Iowa  head coach Kirk Ferentz, left, talk before the game during the Cy-Hawk football game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019 in Ames.

“The targets continue to move,” Iowa State senior associate athletics director Steve Malchow said. 

That’s the word from college administrators everywhere, on the record and during casual conversation, as we near the scheduled late-August start of the 2020 college football season.

How many fans will attend games?

Iowa State athletics director Jamie Pollard wrote in a letter to fans Thursday that Jack Trice Stadium will be at 50% when the season opens against South Dakota on Sept. 5. A couple of hours east on that Saturday, Iowa hosts Northern Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.

Nationally, how many fans will watch in stadiums usually packed with people sitting shoulder-to-shoulder? Iowa AD Gary Barta this week downsized his earlier estimate from 100% to pausing ticket sales.

What are the odds of all stadiums being 50% full when we open up football? The discussion in administrative circles puts it at about 50-50, and  the odds aren't as rosy on whether we'll make it through the season without hiccups.

College football is on a path toward opening, but how it opens is the big question.

How do gameday participants stay safe?

Partially-filled stadiums don’t guarantee the social distancing we’ve been attempting to practice since March. Half-full likely means seating in every third row. It means small-groups-only clusters. Everyone wears face coverings.

There’s talk about limiting football sidelines to players and staff only. Coaches would be near the 50-yard line, while players have the full sideline to themselves.

In past years, the sideline area for players, trainers and others closely affiliated with teams has been between the 25-yard lines. That model could mean photographers working from a roped-off area within the first few rows of the stands.

COVID-19 Testing

Will players be sanitized after a series of plays in a sport that includes extensive contact and perspiration? How often will footballs be cleaned?

College medical people are working through that. There’s multiple opinions on the discussion table.

What might be typical gameday operations?

Assuming games are played with fans in stadiums, here’s the biggest question: Will tailgating be allowed?

At Iowa State, the answer is yes, Pollard wrote in his Thursday letter. With modifications.

I haven't yet heard of anyone shutting down one of college football’s greatest traditions. 

There’s discussion nationally about staggering stadium entrance times. The last thing you want, during a pandemic, is everyone trying to reach the same place in the same span of 15 minutes. There’s also some thought about limiting tailgating from six hours before games at most colleges to no more than three.

At Iowa State, handing a ticket-taker a ticket will be replaced by cellphone digital passes. There isn't clarity yet on cash-less concession stands.

“There’s so many points of contact, not just the tickets,” said Gil Fried, a recognized expert on stadium safety and chairman of the sports management department at the University of New Haven. “And are people going to want to spend as much, when they can’t use cash?

“Restrooms must be constantly sanitized. Stadium banisters must be cleaned.”

What happens if games can’t be played?

A traditional, 12-game regular season seems somewhat improbable, considering the number of football players throughout the nation who tested positive for COVID-19 even before regular contact workouts start. Who, though, decides how many positive tests is too many?

Conference commissioners run college football. Most say they’re on the same page, but that reality is unlikely in practice, the college official said.

No one mandates that schools report positive coronavirus tests. Some do, others don’t. Power Five Conference schools, which include Iowa State and Iowa, likely are among the programs conducting the most sophisticated tests. Lower-division schools might be unable to afford high-level testing, which creates a problem — particularly if teams play nonconference games.

Not all schools can afford the cream of the testing crop, so do you want your higher-tested team facing an opponent without as much testing access? What if the answer is no? There’s no NCAA clearinghouse to help find last-minute replacement opponents, which could bring about something I discussed earlier in the week.

It would lead to teams facing regional opponents twice during a season — like two Cy-Hawk games, for example, instead of one.

It could create scheduling on the fly.

Athletic directors have been talking about this issue for a while. Who's in charge, when it comes to rescheduling? Probably the leaders of respective conferences, but there's still a couple months to figure that out.

The case-by-case cliché could be appropriate this time around, though.

“Make certain college presidents, relying on guidance from medical experts, are the primary decision-makers about whether to reopen and/or keep open their college athletics programs,” Amy Perko, CEO of the national Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, wrote in an email to The Register this week. “Give paramount priority to protecting the health and safety of college athletes and staff, as well as the university community, superseding financial considerations or popular sentiment to reopen college sports.”

What’s the timeline?

There are 100 different chain reactions, regardless of what decisions are made between now and the season’s scheduled start.

“So much is changing, and at a rapid pace,” Malchow said. “There is no reason to throw out dates that will likely change.”

Reinventing the college wheel doesn’t happen overnight. 

Or, as Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione said during a conversation with CBSSports’ Dennis Dodd: "The virus is in more control of this situation than we are."

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.