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Called for Face-Masking: Texas’ Favorite Sport Must Tackle a Deadly Opponent

Shane Buechele of the Southern Methodist Mustangs will be playing in a new virus-laden reality.EXPAND
Shane Buechele of the Southern Methodist Mustangs will be playing in a new virus-laden reality.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

No pass, no play.

In 1984, that was the blunt nickname of sweeping educational reform led by Dallas businessman Ross Perot that mandated Texas high-school athletes make a grade of 70-plus in all classes or be sidelined in their sport.

In 2020, it’s potentially life or death.

Dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed nearly 3,000 Texans and 126,000 Americans, college football is being threatened with a severely disrupted season for the first time in more than 100 years. The health and future of players and the sport itself hinges on positive tests, self-quarantines, stringent social distancing by Gen Z and a very different type of face mask. If the $10 billion college football industry is to have a season this fall, medical experts, school officials and head coaches agree it will offer surreal scenes such as players assuming health risks yet signing liability waivers, half-empty stadiums, asymptomatic stars forced out of uniform, games forfeited because of virus outbreaks and fans, sitting 6 feet apart, adorned in medical masks to prevent the potentially fatal spread of diseased droplets.

“Nothing about this season is going to feel normal,” TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati said during a recent interview on DFW’s ESPN radio. “I think it’s wise to prepare for interruptions, delays and maybe even a couple of games just being canceled.”

In a statement supplied to the Dallas Observer, SMU athletic director Rick Hart seemed optimistic the challenges could be overcome. “We have groups meeting daily to address the myriad of logistics related to playing,” he wrote. “ … I remain confident that we will be ready for the fall.”

As was the case 36 years ago in high school, if a player doesn’t pass his test — then grades and now coronavirus — he won’t be allowed to play.

The Mustangs, set to open their season Sept. 5 against Texas State in San Marcos, have little chance of attaining their goals without All-American Athletic Conference senior quarterback Shane Buechele. Led by his 4,000 passing yards and 36 touchdowns, SMU last season started 8-0, was ranked as high as No. 15 and produced its best season in 40 years.

Before coronavirus came calling, the “Pony Up!” buzz was again building for 2020. Buechele was hyped as one of college football’s Top 15 quarterbacks and became the first Mustang featured on the coveted cover of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football since Lance McIlhenny in 1983. But then the state’s stay-at-home orders nixed a magazine photo shoot and the promotional interview for the honor centered not on football but on Buechele’s COVID-19 GoFundMe campaign that raised $50,000 for Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson’s Disaster Relief Fund.

“Dallas is home, and my city is suffering,” said Buechele, who presented Johnson with a check at Dallas’ Fire Station No. 4. “It was really rewarding to reach our goal even while we’re suffering through a pandemic.”

In a bizarre season likely to be dominated by swabs as much as stats, off-field results could both save lives and shape championships.

“In the end, it’ll be the healthiest teams that wind up playing for the biggest prizes,” Donati said.

Despite the unprecedented logistical hurdles, lack of a uniform testing plan, warnings from medical professionals, drastic uptick in cases in Texas and ominous paradigms from professional sports — not to mention the droves of COVID-19 infections from on-campus workouts in June — college football seems determined to at least kick off its season Aug. 29.

“As of now, the game is on,” said Donati, whose Horned Frogs are scheduled to open Sept. 5 at California. “We don’t like to see the trend of cases surging. But there’s lots to be decided before then.”

After an aggressive reopening in May, Texas recently became one of the country’s virus hot spots along with Florida and Arizona. In Dallas, County Judge Clay Jenkins said on June 25 that COVID-19 hospitalizations were up 88 percent for the month. With cases in the state soaring past 6,000 per day, Gov. Greg Abbott closed bars, reduced restaurant capacities and outlawed large outdoor gatherings. Members of President Donald Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force, including Vice President Mike Pence, even showed up in town June 28 to address the troubling trend.

With no vaccine on the horizon, a Texas two-step forward may first require another one back.

“Surely the public can understand that if these spikes continue, additional measures are necessary to maintain the health and safety of our state,” Abbott said during his June 26 press conference.

Given the intense, sometimes political debate over COVID-19 that rivals Texas-OU’s bad blood, local medical experts suggest DFW has to do the little things (wearing a mask) before it can begin planning the big ones (attending a college football game).

“The thing that worries me is how many of our friends in this community are treating this virus like it’s no big deal,” said Dr. Joseph Chang, chief medical officer for Parkland Hospital. “I know we all want to get back to normal activities like going out and watching sports, but right now we can’t get people convinced that this is a real problem.”

Abbott’s latest guidelines require approval for outdoor gatherings of 100 or more. But in early June he told university athletic directors to anticipate 50-percent capacity in their stadiums come fall, meaning crowds of only 16,000 at SMU’s Gerald J. Ford Stadium and around 50,000 at Texas’ Darrell K. Royal-Memorial Stadium in Austin.

“The virus is in more control of this situation than we are,” Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said.

Good news: College football has the luxury of monitoring professional sports’ attempts to reboot in the middle of a pandemic.

Bad news: Their models already have hiccups.

Preparations for 2020’s condensed, mutated, irregular seasons of sports are not going well. Major events such as college basketball’s March Madness, Wimbledon, the New York City Marathon and minor league baseball are canceled. The National Hockey League has reported 15 positive cases and shut down the Tampa Bay Lightning’s facility since beginning practices June 8 ahead of a July restart. World No. 1-ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic tested positive after organizing his own no-safety-measures tournament. An outbreak at its Florida headquarters even shut down production of World Wrestling Entertainment.

“We need to learn to live with this virus,” said PGA commissioner Jay Monahan after five golfers with COVID-19 infections or concerns withdrew from a tournament in late June. “This virus isn’t going anywhere. You’re going to have positive tests going forward.”

Korean baseball and German soccer have relaunched with strict guidelines and minimal incidents. But while England, Italy, South Korea and Germany reported a combined 2,746 new cases on June 27, Texas alone had 6,057.

So far, the NFL plans to play its season as scheduled beginning in September. The certainty, however, recently hit some doubt when Dallas Cowboys’ running back Ezekiel Elliott tested positive, in part prompting the league to cancel his team’s Aug. 6 preseason opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I’m feeling good,” Elliott said on Twitch June 24, nine days after testing positive. “I had one or two days where I felt symptoms. Even then it wasn’t too bad. I had a cough and a little bit of shortness of breath. But now I feel good. I feel normal.”

Ezekiel Elliott says he was feeling good nine days after testing positive for COVID-19.EXPAND
Ezekiel Elliott says he was feeling good nine days after testing positive for COVID-19.
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Similar to college football but opposite other pro sports, the NFL remains hopeful of playing games with fans in the stands. Its parameters call for safety measures such as individual water bottles for every player and social distancing by players, even on the bench. Considering traditional football elements like tight huddles of 11 players and routine piles of 10-plus, it’s difficult — almost laughable — to envision that rule being enforced on the field.

“We are going to social distance, but play football?” Los Angeles Rams’ head coach Sean McVay said recently on a conference call with reporters. “I don’t get it!”

A Cowboys’ employee admitted recently, “It’s going to be a clusterfuck.”

While a recovered Elliott anticipates an NFL season, he realizes the danger.
.
“It really didn’t affect me much,” he said. “But a lot of people have kids. They may have asthma. Or their parents or grandparents may live with them. I hope we do have a season. But it has to be right.”

Major League Baseball’s experiment began with a “summer camp” at team ballparks July 1 and includes a 60-game sprint of a season set to start July 23. Several players have opted out of playing including Colorado Rockies’ outfielder Ian Desmond, who said simply, “Home is where I need to be right now.” The league was forced to temporarily shutter all team facilities in Florida and Arizona in mid-June after announcing multiple cases.

“It’s not a question of if there will be positive tests,” Texas Rangers’ general manager Jon Daniels said. “But when.”

Before baseball supporters could fully digest an Opening Day shoved to late July, games without fans, rules prohibiting spitting and players tested every other day, Daniels proved prophetic. In a statement released June 26, the Rangers confirmed “several” employees had tested positive for the virus and that the team’s headquarters at new Globe Life Field was being closed for a deep cleaning.

The NBA is even more specifically molding its season around the virus, confining its players and games inside a “bubble” at the Disney complex in Orlando, Florida. Despite the restrictions of a season set to restart July 31, a handful of healthy players are voluntarily tapping out because of health concerns.

As Dallas Mavericks’ general manager Donnie Nelson put it recently, “Look, this is a unique situation. Death has never been on the table before.”

Playing college football in a pandemic is as tricky as watching virtual Fourth of July fireworks close to loved ones — without getting too close.

It didn’t take long for the realization that this season will be fundamentally flawed. After the NCAA relaxed a rule prohibiting on-campus workouts during June, almost as soon as guinea pigs ... players … began arriving positive tests arose.

Clemson reported 37 players infected. Defending national champion LSU quarantined 30-plus. Texas and Kansas State both paused their conditioning programs after 10-plus cases each. Houston, which didn’t test players upon arrival, was forced shut down its facilities. Same for Boise State. Baylor, Texas A&M, Central Florida, Alabama, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech were among schools contributing to approximately 150 cases nationwide.

At TCU, special assistant coach Jerry Kill contracted the virus (he has since recovered). At SMU, 75 athletes from various sports, including football, began socially distanced workouts of 10 participants or less supervised by conditioning coaches on June 15. Within 10 days, the Mustangs reported five positive tests.

A sport headstrong to play together outside while the rest of the world has spent most of the year isolating at home can’t afford to flinch at every positive case. Nonetheless, Oklahoma football coach Lincoln Riley might have been right in May when he scoffed at college football’s early reopening.

“All this talk about all these schools bringing players back on June 1 is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard,” Riley said.

By waiting until July 1, the Sooners were one of the last schools in the country to welcome athletes on campus.

Unlike the NBA, college football can’t create its own microclimate, limiting travel and centralizing medical care by playing its games inside a luxurious biosphere. Unlike baseball, most programs don’t have an extra $500,000 in the budget to test 80 players plus staff every other day for five months. And unlike the NFL, every team doesn’t have the financial security blanket of $255 million in TV revenue to offset losses in ticket revenue and game-day spending.

Sensing the health hazards and/or financial strains, some schools are taking radical measures. Division II Morehouse College canceled its season. Four games involving historically black schools — Southern, Tennessee State, Jackson State and Florida A&M — have been scratched. Notre Dame’s Aug. 29 opener against Navy was moved from Ireland to Annapolis. Bracing for the dings to athletic budgets that are 80-percent funded by football, schools such as Connecticut and Northern Colorado are already cutting minor sports like soccer, tennis and rowing.

Football is the economic driver for Texas A&M’s athletic department, generating approximately $50 million in 2019.

At the University of Oklahoma, athletics officials announced Wednesday initial cost-cutting measures that are now in place as a result of the COVID-19 global pandemic. The department has implemented budget cuts of approximately $13.7 million in controllable operating expenses, including a 10% salary reduction for any employee earning a salary of $1 million or more per year.

In worst cases, entire institutions might close their doors without the donations and financing provided by football season.

Therein lies the conundrum. Some athletic programs are under financial and political pressure to return to the field while balancing suggestions from health officials that schools offer online-only courses in the fall. Virtual classes without students on campus would decrease tuition and proceeds. But opening campuses and football stadiums could expose schools to outbreaks and liability.

America’s leading infectious disease doctor, Anthony Fauci, believes football should take a year off.

“Unless players are essentially in a bubble, insulated from the community, and they are tested nearly every day, it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” Fauci told CNN in mid-June.

But football, from high-school Friday nights to college Saturday afternoons to professional Monday nights, is permanently woven into the fabric of Texas culture. In these parts, it’s closer to religion than entertainment. Labor Day would feel hollow without the Cowboys’ opener. The State Fair of Texas without Texas-OU seems inconceivable. Same for a week of high school championships played at AT&T Stadium the week before Christmas.

Despite the love of the sport, there are those struggling to deny science.

“When you think about a Petri dish for spreading infection, can you think of one that’s better than the State Fair of Texas?” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said on SiriusXM radio in April. “People are jammed in there and they’re enthusiastic. It’s about a perfect place to transmit any kind of infection.”

Traditional spring games were canceled months ago. Summer workouts are being altered. Schools and conferences that aren’t considering terminations are implementing tweaks.

Jeremiah Donati, TCU's athletic director, says that moving the football season to the spring could be a possibility if COVID-19 proves to be a roadblock.EXPAND
Jeremiah Donati, TCU's athletic director, says that moving the football season to the spring could be a possibility if COVID-19 proves to be a roadblock.
Joyce Marshall /Star-Telegram via AP

For now, college football is steadfastly promoting its national championship game Jan. 11 in Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium. But like a good run-pass option play, there are a variety of routes when it comes to adjusting and adapting to COVID-19.

Even a 2020 season played in 2021.

“There’s been talk about moving this season to next spring,” Donati said. “It’s not on the top of the agenda, but it’s on the table as a possibility.”

Other major topics that will surely shape one of college football’s strangest seasons:

Revenue

The loss of March Madness and a full season of spring sports already has universities feeling pinched.

The NCAA initially planned to distribute $600 million to member schools in June, but in March announced the total would be reduced to only $225 million. A total deletion of the college football season would mean $4 billion in lost revenue. The cancellation of even a handful of games could have dramatic effects.

AT&T Stadium is scheduled to host the showcase Alabama-Southern California opener Sept. 5. When the teams played in Arlington in 2016, the game attracted 81,359 fans and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones reaped $16 million. The teams received $6 million each.

Under Abbott’s impending directive, those totals could conceivably be cut in half.

Testing

Despite the positive cases, SMU and most major-college teams are about to ramp up their programs. On July 13, the Mustangs will open facilities for players to begin expanded hours of conditioning, weight training and film review.

With the NCAA not providing a standardized COVID-19 testing template, major college teams across 41 states will instead follow their local government recommendations. Considering economic disparities for medical equipment and varying infection rates, the testing procedures may be drastically different from region to region. The University of Arizona is budgeting $1 million to test every athlete for the duration of the fall semester, while Mid-American Conference schools plan to test players only when symptoms are present.

The Big 12 Conference has contracted with North Carolina-based Infectious Control Education for Major Sports (ICS), the company that tests the NFL, MLB and NHL.

Rising cases across the country now have medical experts predicting infection rates of 5-7 percent for college students returning to campus. Extrapolated over 13,000 players that could mean as many as 900 infected, the equivalent of 11 entire teams.

Waivers

Because players aren’t ancient Roman gladiators fighting to the death during a global crisis solely for fans’ amusement, there are those in political office who don’t want to expose them to abnormal health risks in pursuit of what could wind up being a tainted title. Because universities are in the business of CYA, many are asking those players to sign liability waivers.

Ohio State calls it the “Buckeye Pledge.” At TCU it’s a “Code of Conduct.” At SMU, it’s an “Acknowledgement of Risk” form that essentially shields the school and its employees from COVID-19 related lawsuits. Mostly without legal representation, athletes are waiving their rights to legal recourse in the event of a positive test related to school activities. Those choosing not to sign the waiver can keep their scholarship and eligibility but are not allowed to work out with teammates this summer.

In the statement from SMU, Hart said:

As we developed our plan for student-athletes to safely return to campus and resume voluntary activities, we consulted with an array of internal and external colleagues. The inclusion of an acknowledgment form emerged as a best practice among peer athletics programs, as well as other organizations and facilities such as schools, gyms and daycares. Our intent in providing the document is to confirm that our student-athletes acknowledge that there is risk associated with co-existing with a pandemic, particularly since they will be operating under our protocols for only a short period of time each day during this voluntary summer workout period. Our intent is also to make clear that if, for any reason, a student-athlete is not comfortable participating in activities at this time, it will not impact their eligibility or their scholarship status.

TCU has a similar form.

“With coronavirus in play, everyone has to accept some responsibility and assume some risk,” Donati said.

Two Democratic U.S. senators, however, believe schools should be prohibited from what they see is exploiting athletes.

Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Cory Booker of New Jersey submitted a bill in late June that would prevent universities from compelling athletes to sign COVID-19 waivers. The senators sent an accompanying letter to NCAA President Mark Emmert and have asked for his response by July 7.

Reads the letter, “This is a grave concern … An institution shall not allow any individual to agree to a waiver of liability regarding the coronavirus.”

Attendance

The 2020 season might present college football fans with only a dud of a doppelganger. A Texas A&M with only a whimper of a 12th man, an LSU “Deaf” Valley void of lubricated tailgate fans, and a Texas-OU with only Big Tex watching at the Cotton Bowl.

No other American sport is fueled more by emotion, passion, ambiance and crowd energy, but schools and head coaches are resigned to preparing their teams to play at 100 percent in 50-percent empty stadiums.

At SMU’s Ford Stadium, that would mean entire empty rows. At TCU, it creates the logistical challenge of designating a safe student section of 4,500. At Texas, it means being forced to decide how many of its 60,000 season-ticket holders get into the stadium. At Oklahoma’s Gaylord Family Memorial Stadium, it means the end of a sellout streak that began in 1999.

While America dons its masks, college football might be preparing to affix some asterisks.

Bowlsby was already fretting over the issue a few weeks into the pandemic, wondering if fans would even want to return to packed stadiums.
“Are they going to sit cheek-to-jowl with people they don’t know when there isn’t a vaccine in place?” he said. “The whole psychology of it is very interesting and obviously very impactful for colleges and universities and athletics programs. We really truly are living in the midst of a black swan occurrence, and I think all of us are trying to be prepared but waiting to see what the virus brings us.”

Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher is the outlier, expecting college football’s new normal to feel, well, normal.

“I am very encouraged because our governor has opened up outside sports to 50 percent now,” Fisher said via university press release in June. “I expect it’s going to be pretty close to normal.”

Scheduling

With administrators and health experts predicting swaths of teams’ rosters being forced into 14-day self-quarantines, a team completing a full-squad full schedule seems unlikely. The season could feature mutual postponements, cancellations, forfeits and even games suspended during play in the event of a fresh positive test result.

Several conferences are considering pushing back their early-December championship games a week to allow for potential make-up games. The Ivy League has two Plan Bs, including a conference-only, seven-game schedule in 2020 or the spring of 2021. Bowlsby indicates the Big 12 has options to accommodate a conference champion that plays nine or even as few as seven games.

Arizona State has also suggested canceling its non-conference games to limit exposure and travel outside the western U.S.

“I don’t know if we’ll be playing teams from other conferences or not, but I think we can make the conference work,” ASU President Michael Crow said on a Pac 12 conference call in June. “That’s basically what we’re headed towards.”

Social Distancing

The early outbreak of cases on campus in the dead of summer is particularly troubling to schools, in that tens of thousands of students are yet to arrive. And real football, with contact and sweat in its DNA, won’t start until padded practices commence around Aug. 7.

“Sports, by their very nature, don’t have social distancing,” Donati said. “The issue isn’t going to be having positive cases. It’s how do you keep them in control and avoid a full outbreak?”

As if football has any legitimate chance of keeping its players — running back, meet linebacker — apart, the challenge could be equally daunting off the field.

Virus or not, college students like to college. Young adults aged 18-22 are social creatures who enjoy going to class, to bars, to games and, yes, to parties. And college football is steeped in interactive traditions. Tailgating. Swaying arm-in-arm at College Station’s Kyle Field. Screaming and singing and high-fiving, all the while unknowingly spraying potentially infectious droplets into the shared air.

While young, healthy players and students may not fear the dire consequences of contracting COVID-19, the same cannot be said for older staff members and coaches. In 2020 there are 17 major college head coaches 60 or over, an age group proven to be the highest risk for fatal infections.

“About the healthiest bunch you’re going to find is college-age athletes,” said Donati. “When they’re asymptomatic, when they’re finding this isn’t their disease, it’s going to be difficult to convince them to isolate from social gatherings. But they’ll get reminded. Sometimes not so subtly. The key to success, even survival, for a lot of teams will be self-discipline away from football.”

With major American leagues on hiatus since March 11, the country’s fans crave sports. Tired of silent golf tournaments, old documentaries and ESPN replays of college Cornhole on TV, they’re desperate for any semblance of normal, live events.

College football has been played as scheduled every year since 1918, when another pandemic – the Spanish flu – teamed with World War I to limit affiliations such as the old Southwest Conference to four conference games. Its return as temperatures cool and leaves turn brown would provide a flicker of hope at the end of 2020’s tunnel of terror.

But the virus doesn’t care about nationality or race or politics or tradition or rankings. Though the sport brings Americans together, authorities are still warning that the best medicine is staying apart. While the healthcare professionals suggest an elimination of risk, college football plans to merely manage it.

A return to life — to college football — they say, should be guided by data, not a date.

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“Traveling from college stadium to stadium, trying to keep fans and all the players safe in a sport where there is constant contact … it’s just unrealistic,” chair of the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School Dr. Jim Yong Kim said on HBO’s Real Sports. “We’re tricking ourselves into thinking American exceptionalism extends to viruses. But this is, unfortunately, very predictable. If we don’t take appropriate safety measures and we instead try to hold games and seasons, the virus will do what it does. And the virus will win.”

As it was then, “No Pass. No Play.” is now again at the forefront of a turbulent college football era.

In 1984, the decisive number was a grade of 70.

In 2020, it’s a body temperature of 100.4.

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