As problems mount, college football's outlook appears grim: 'You can feel the tidal wave coming'

The painful unwinding of the 2020 college football season is upon us.

So many significant events for the sport have been squeezed into the last 72 hours that it feels like the rat-a-tat lyrics to the old REM song, “It’s the end of the world.” Except no one feels fine.

The most visceral news came with UConn football canceling the 2020 season on Wednesday morning, the first Division I program to do so. Then there are the star defections – Virginia Tech’s Caleb Farley, Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman and the expectation that Penn State’s Micah Parsons will join them soon. It continued with an internal investigation at Colorado State for its handling of COVID-19, a Stadium report that three-quarters of Idaho players don’t want to play and three Big Ten schools with significant enough breakouts and contact tracing that they’ve paused workouts.

Then there’s the health scare of Indiana offensive lineman Brady Feeney, Pac-12 players threatening a walk-out and the roaring rumblings that high-profile players will continue to join the opt-out conga line. Then, of course, there’s Major League Baseball sputtering through its un-bubbled season and a spree of NFL players opting out of the season, leaving administrators feeling queasy about the future of their unpaid players. “You can feel the tidal wave coming,” a Power Five AD told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday morning.

The bottom line is that when the autopsy of the 2020 college football season is conducted, it will state the obvious about COVID-19’s role as saboteur. The spiral to get there – and it will be a classically disjointed process – has begun. The defections, cancellations and health concerns, taken individually, haven’t been enough to cancel the season. Collectively, they’ve created a new level of concern at the presidential level that will ultimately set the course for the sport.

“Each day, many campus executives become more unsure about playing fall sports,” said an industry source. “They read the headlines, they see the student concerns and they have a greater understanding of the risks involved. Ultimately, this may come down to simply who wants to go first.”

The CFB 2020 logo is displayed on the field prior to the College Football Playoff title game between Clemson and LSU. (Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images)
The CFB 2020 logo is displayed on the field prior to the College Football Playoff title game between Clemson and LSU. (Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images)

And this level of concern arrives before the two biggest obstacles of having a season have been addressed – students arriving back on campus and untenable contact tracing protocols that are destined to handcuff rosters.

It’s too early to declare the 2020 football season over. But the path to cancellation appears more obvious than the path to any type of functional and recognizable season. The beginning of the end is upon us, getting closer as the drumbeat of the news cycle grows louder and louder.

On campus, many college coaches are feeling better about playing than any time since players could return in June. Many have created an environment in summer workouts where they’ve limited exposure to the virus, preached social responsibility and have limited positive tests. But those situations have to be balanced with places like Michigan State, Rutgers and Northwestern, which are shut down right now. Schools like Cal, UCLA and USC have yet to be cleared for full team gatherings and physical contact because of government-issued virus-related restrictions.

“We all know where it’s going to end,” said a high-ranking athletic department official. “It’s a game of hot potato, and we’re all passing it around. We’re all so terrified [at the conference level] of being first and alone and 17 players go into the portal the next day. It’s sad and pathetic, but it represents the reality of where people are.”

While the situations at Colorado State, UConn and Rutgers have echoed loudest in the news cycle this week, Feeney’s situation is the biggest force behind the scenes at the administrative level. His mother’s viral Facebook post about her son’s struggle with COVID-19, posted in a forum dedicated to the concerned parents of college football players, had a chilling effect on athletic administrators and beyond.

Feeney’s mother, Deborah Rucker, detailed her son going to the emergency room with breathing issues and enduring “14 days of hell.” The words that have administrators most nervous were this: “Now we are dealing with possible heart issues.”

Many schools have instilled a protocol that includes extensive cardiology reviews to be cleared to go back. But this is why a “novel virus” is so thorny for administrators to deal with: We won’t know the impact for years. For administrators, Feeney’s story represents both health risk and financial liability. And the early studies of COVID-19 and its impact on the heart suggest a “lasting impact.”

“It’s been important that most of the cases for this demographic of healthy student athletes have been asymptomatic or with just mild symptoms,” said another high-ranking official of the cases that have emerged. “The Feeney story makes everyone pause on the idea of just accepting and managing positive cases.”

The bottom line is that there’s just not a lot known. Take what happened in the Big Ten on Monday night. In the wake of the Pac-12’s player movement, the Big Ten organized a call with two student athletes from each conference school. (One football player and one from another sport.) It was with commissioner Kevin Warren and Dr. Chris Kratochvil, and multiple sources briefed on the Zoom said it lasted nearly 2.5 hours.

The commissioner and doctor were engaged and empathetic to the students’ concerns, and the students left appreciative for the forum. But multiple sources said that there were few specific answers to questions about protocols, testing and managing the virus. (The Big Ten policies released on Wednesday morning weren’t finalized on Monday night, which led to some of the ambiguity.)

Still, the lack of specific answers underscored the spin cycle that college football is in, a constant state of meeting, speculating and failing to find and focus on a clear and safe path to play.

Parse the Big Ten’s schedule release for a peek into the league’s current thought process. Their public statements appear designed to not create false hope. The press release wasn’t exactly designed to excite fan bases, as it echoed the league’s cautious tone: “Issuing a schedule does not guarantee competition will occur.”

The Pac-12 is also proceeding with caution. It had a presidents’ meeting on Tuesday night, which wasn’t regularly scheduled. It underscored how carefully the presidential level is monitoring athletics right now, as the Pac-12 is amid the tumult of the recent player movement.

No moves are considered imminent. But the industry speculation revolves around which major league will be first to pull the plug. The Big Ten or the Pac-12 are favorites. They’d likely arrive at a decision in the upcoming weeks. How the dominoes fall from there would be compelling, as there’s still a chance that the dire needs for revenue and the cultural importance of football could nudge leagues to forge ahead until players vocalize enough concerns or the liability unnerves administrators.

The major college conferences have shown so little unity that the whole unwinding process is expected to be drawn out and disparate. The only universal expectation is the NCAA will continue to have little say.

The buzziest topic in AD circles is whether some schools will follow the lead of James Madison and Elon and attempt to play an independent schedule. (It’s hard to imagine major conferences allowing that.) At the very least, a few schools are expected to float the idea to feed some red meat to their fan base about how seriously they take the sport.

The downward spiral for college football shutting down in 2020 has begun. Sadly, the only drama this season may deliver is how we get there.

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