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Peterson: The ripple effects of the Miami Marlins' COVID-19 outbreak on college football

Randy Peterson
Des Moines Register

If Major League Baseball can’t get through one week of its abbreviated season without a coronavirus-related cancellation, what evidence is out there that college football can survive — or perhaps even start — this fall?

No matter your level of fingers-crossed optimism, all sports suffered a hit Monday when the Miami Marlins canceled their Monday game with the Baltimore Orioles after at least 14 members of the team's traveling group tested positive for COVID-19 during its season-opening series this past weekend against the Philadelphia Phillies.

And then more news broke Monday that the Marlins may have played Sunday, despite knowing that some players tested positive. Would that scenario unfold at the college level?

It’s appalling to even think that administrators would put winning ahead of safety of its amateur players and staff, but it's not out of the realm of possibility.

Everyone expected setbacks as team sports returned to play. 

... But during the first week of the baseball season, and by a team that reportedly decided to play, despite knowing the virus was in its clubhouse?

What precautions can prevent something similar from happening in other sports? What in about college football, where there’s no national leader, no one keeping track of negative or positive COVID-19 tests among the football-playing schools, and no cancellation threshold for positive tests?

“If we are advised that it is OK to play the (football) season, we should all expect that there will be such disruptions,” Big 12 Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby wrote in a Monday morning email to The Register.

At the highest level, college football hasn’t said "uncle." Playing is wishful thinking, but at least as of Monday morning, the plan was to proceed. As long as the players who make millions for universities throughout the country receive the OKs — from their school presidents, from local governments, health officials and conference commissioners — for a safe and healthy start to the season, back-to-football momentum will continue.

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.

No one expected smooth sailing. There are no absolutes, no assurances for an uninterrupted football fall. Disruptions are expected.

Disruption was anticipated in baseball, too.

Still, Monday's revelations provided a pivotal moment for sports in general. It’s a bit like mid-March all over again, when everyone was wondering what hit them as the NBA, NHL and college basketball shut down.

Monday's events could be especially significant to decisions college administrators must make in the coming weeks.

In that respect, The Register asked Bowlsby three questions via email last weekend — before Monday’s Marlins announcement.

When do you expect fans will know the fate of college football?

What needs to happen for football to be played in the fall?

What is the likelihood the Big 12 will alter schedules to include conference games, plus one or two opponents from outside the league?

As the ACC and the SEC Power Five conferences might come through with plans for football this week (emphasis on the word “might”), when should fans know the fate of Big 12 football?

“It is a day-to-day process,” Bowlsby wrote Sunday, 12 hours or so before the Marlins’ news broke. “There is no magic date. The decisions will be situational based on the progression of the virus, the availability of testing and the speed of results. Our schools will continue to advance slowly with constant re-evaluation.”

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The NCAA’s Board of Governors pushed a decision on continuing sponsoring fall championships to its next meeting Aug. 4. Already, a handful of FCS conferences have announced they won’t sponsor football in the fall. Some major colleges have paused workouts because of positive COVID-19 tests — most recently Michigan State and Rutgers.

“(Coronavirus) testing needs to be available and results readily assessed and returned” for a season to take place, Bowlsby wrote. “Masks and social distancing in all parts of society will help to safeguard athletes and all members of our communities. Proper and ongoing mitigation procedures need to continue to be employed and improved.”

For college football, then, it’s still wait-and-see. Since everyone has gone this long before putting their fall football cards on the table, what’s another week or so?

The Big 12, SEC and ACC could make all-in decisions that will affect everyone from the players, coaches and staffs, to however many fans — if any — will be allowed into games.

They could push the season to the spring. They could cancel.

It’s their call, considering the operation is run by the commissioners, the college football playoffs, TV partners, the bowl games and university presidents.

Official fall camp doesn’t open for most until the first week of August. There’s still a precious few days of time, and the Big 12 is using as much of it as they can. (The league’s presidents and chancellors meet Aug. 3.)

“We are prepared with a wide variety of schedule models,” Bowlsby wrote.

They're operating on the assumption that Iowa State, for example, opens the regular season Sept. 5 against South Dakota at Jack Trice Stadium. It’s assuming the Cyclones find a replacement for the Sept. 12 Cy-Hawk game that was lost when the Big Ten said it was playing only conference games. It’s wishful thinking that the regular season ends Nov. 27 at home against West Virginia.

“At the present time,” Bowlsby wrote before Monday’s Marlins news, “we plan to start on week zero (Aug. 29) and play a full schedule.”

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. Your subscription makes work like this possible. Subscribe today at DesMoinesRegister.com/Deal