Howe: College Football Could Work With Online-Only Classes

August 19, 2020

Written by Rob Howe

Hawkeye Nation

IOWA CITY, Iowa – I commend Iowa Football and its medical advisors for handling COVID-19 as best they could for two months this summer. Over time, their novel virus curve flattened.

Last week, 335 people were tested in the athletic department. Four positives came back or 1.2 percent. Since starting testing at the end of May, 1276 tests were conducted with 51 positives or 4.0 percent. Coaches, athletes and department personnel were tested and the results weren’t broken down.

Hawkeye Football dealt with clusters of positive cases throughout summer training. Protocols that included contact tracing sidelined student-athletes and disrupted workouts. But, again, they controlled it better as time passed.

Iowa and other Big Ten programs likely would have dealt with virus issues had the conference not canceled fall football last week. It’s a highly contagious bug. But a season seemed realistic provided the 14 teams remained in their bubble within their facilities.

We learned during the last week that the bubble was about to burst. Institutions, which included Iowa, that were welcoming students back to campus for in-person learning were setting up their student-athletes for disaster.

Outbreaks at North Carolina led the school to online only learning after a week of in-person classes. Notre Dame is halting in-person learning for at least two weeks.

Alabama athletics director Greg Byrne and football coach Nick Saban have been pleading with students to follow COVID-19 safety guidelines but were fighting an uphill battle.

It’s not surprising. Students are reuniting with friends after not seeing them since the pandemic started in mid-March. They understand that the virus impacts their age group at a much lower rate than older folks if they’re otherwise healthy.

Although it was 30 years ago, I remember feeling invincible in college. I’m guessing that mindset hasn’t changed.

Iowa students began returning to campus in large numbers last week with Monday being “move in day.” Early returns showed similar behavior to what was witnessed at Alabama. Iowa City police reported crowds within at least two local bars.

One of them promoted a special designed to bring in customers in a large group. Other establishments in town have posted cheap-drink offers on their websites and elsewhere. Students know where to go for the maximum bang for their buck.

I get it. Businesses are being crushed during the pandemic. Most of them are following strict protocols and trying to survive. Iowa City mandates masks. It’s hard to expect the following of strict safety guidelines when young people and alcohol are involved, however. And not everyone is on board with the guidelines anyway.

Unlike Iowa State, which received 175 positive tests when students returned to campus this week, Iowa is not testing students before they move into residence halls. Hawkeye student-athletes could be walking right into an outbreak while attending classes or living among the general student population, increasing the risk of contaminating the football facility.

Iowa players care for each other. They’re living smartly through the pandemic, taking precautions when they’re out of the football building. You can ask students to do the right thing if they want to see the Hawkeyes play, but they’re not as invested. In many cases, their desire for socialization trumps a desire to see football.

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North Carolina football coach Mack Brown said the university shifting to on-line only classes helps keep his team operate in a bubble. That increases the Tar Heels’ chances of getting through a season without an outbreak. He’s right.

Notre Dame and North Carolina, two programs playing in the ACC, now can isolate their players again. They’re scheduled to kick off their seasons on Sept. 12.

It would have been great for football had all colleges gone to online-only early learning this fall. While not a restrictive bubble like the NBA and NHL have been utilizing with success, it could have been a more controlled environment like MLB, which despite teams shutting down for periods of time, has completed almost a month of play.

Of course, colleges are bringing students back on campus to collect tuition. They can charge more for in-person learning than conducting classes on-line. Football is important but not that important.

North Carolina canceled in-person classes a little more than an hour before tuition was due. That promoted the theory that it was a money grab for these schools.

Michigan State of the Big Ten shifted to online-only learning this week. Conference partners Rutgers and Maryland already made that move. The other 11 colleges have proceeded with various forms of hybrid learning making the ability to play a football season unlikely.

Of course, if colleges are putting student-athletes in a bubble in order to raise millions for athletic departments while deeming campuses unsafe for the general student population, that raises the topic of paying players and allowing them to earn money from their names, images and likenesses. That’s a column for a different day.

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