The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already postponed fall sports, eyeing a potential football season in the spring. The rest of college football is staring down that same possibility.
But there has to be a plan for navigating another college sports stoppage, and if one exists, WVU head coach Neal Brown is still waiting to hear it.
“I think the biggest question is this — and this is something people aren’t talking about — what’s the plan if we don’t play? Everybody is talking about, ‘hey, we’ve got to make these decisions.’ I just want to know what the plan is if we don’t play,” Brown said Monday after West Virginia’s first practices of preseason camp. “How do we handle these 100 student-athletes that I have, at all these Power 5 schools, and all these Group of 5 schools, how do we handle that?”
When West Virginia’s spring season was halted in March — along with all other college sports — college administrators were blindsided by the pandemic, Brown said.
“Nobody really had a plan, because nobody really saw,” Brown said. “We didn’t see this coming. We didn’t have time to plan.”
Brown and his staff ultimately adapted, teaching players throughout the extended offseason via virtual meetings.
But college athletics have reached another major road block. The possibility of another sports stoppage has loomed for weeks, and the Power 5 conferences are split on how to proceed. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already pulled the plug, the ACC and SEC reportedly remain committed to playing and the Big 12 could be somewhere in between.
If the Big 12 does elect to pause all sports again, Brown thinks there needs to be a more clear plan for the next steps this time.
“Before we make a decision about are we gonna play or not gonna play, we gotta make decisions about what it looks like if we don’t play,” Brown said. “If we make that decision, which I’m against, but if we make that decision, then we’ve got to have a clear plan with how we’re gonna move forward in this semester with these guys. It can’t be, ‘hey, we’re not playing. Oh, I don’t know.’ They’re tired of that. They’re tired of ‘I-don’t-knows.’”
When the Big Ten and Pac-12 announced the postponement of fall sports Tuesday, initial statements from conference officials didn’t directly outline a plan for student-athletes to bridge the gap until competition resumes. At least one individual school, Ohio State, announced that student-athletes will still have access to team facilities and regular COVID-19 testing, among other things, despite the Big Ten’s decision.
But if another pause in competition leads to another pause in organized in-person activities like it did at the beginning of the pandemic, Brown thinks student-athletes could suffer unintended consequences — even though college football decision makers say the health and wellbeing of athletes is at the center of this entire dilemma.
“We’re not talking about what the collateral damage is for young people when something they love is taken away from them, and that structure and discipline is taken away from them,” Brown said. “You take them out of their athletics, you take them out of their structure, you take them out of what they really love, what happens? Because I’ve seen it. When they’re not here for three months, I’ve seen it within our team. When decision makers are making a decision, they’ve got to think about the collateral damage as well.”
“Collateral damage” could extend well beyond each athlete’s physical and mental wellbeing. Though the NCAA has guaranteed that student-athletes will stay on scholarship, questions remain about eligibility for athletes if the season is played in the spring, or if the 2020 football season is ultimately never played.
“”If I’m a player, I want to maximize my four years of eligibility. That’s where we’re gonna run into some issues in the spring,” Brown said. “Can the models work? Absolutely. But I think we have to address the eligibility concern from the athletes.”
Brown notes that WVU’s return to play protocols include numerous safety enhancements, such as split practices, modified helmets and regularly sanitized equipment. In addition, Brown said WVU has provided echocardiograms and cardio MRIs to players.
He thinks all of these safety measures, along with continued regular testing, will make it safe to play football games in Morgantown next month.
“I think we can make it work in the fall,” Brown said. “I think it’s doable. I think we can do it in a safe manner.”
It’s still possible the power brokers in the Big 12 will disagree with him.