NCAA president Mark Emmert: No sports without students on campus

As questions continue to swirl about the prospects of college sports being played in the fall amid the coronavirus pandemic, NCAA president Mark Emmert addressed an array of issues in an interview posted on NCAA social channels Friday night.

One of the main points Emmert made is that he does not envision a scenario where football or other sports can take place if students cannot return to their respective campuses.

“All of the Division I commissioners and every president that I’ve talked to is in clear agreement: If you don’t have students on campus, you don’t have student-athletes on campus,” Emmert said. “That doesn’t mean it has to be up and running in the full normal model, but you’ve got to treat the health and well-being of the athletes at least as much as the regular students. So if a school doesn’t reopen, then they’re not going to be playing sports. It’s really that simple.”

Conference commissioners have been clear in their hope to have the college football season start at the same time for all teams. But some, like Greg Sankey of the SEC, have said that forging ahead separate from other conferences is not out of the question. Elsewhere, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told Stadium that football could return if only online classes were being held.

The coronavirus has impacted each state in different ways, making it increasingly difficult to craft a uniform return-to-play model. Emmert said he believes it is “unlikely” that all schools are “going to be in the same place at the same time.” He also acknowledged that the ability for certain schools to return to athletic activities before others will likely create “competitive-equity” issues across the country.

“It strikes me that it’s very unlikely that we will reach a place sometime this summer where everybody feels equally confident and equally comfortable because this is so differentiated by geographies and urban density and a whole array of different demographic variables. The level of confidence is going to vary from campus to campus,” Emmert said. “Those have got to be local decisions based upon the best available evidence and data. That has interesting implications, of course, for intercollegiate athletics.”

Differences in schedules from team-to-team is something the NCAA is willing to accept as it places health and safety above all else, Emmert said.

“You don’t want to ever put student-athletes at greater risk than the rest of the student body. Everybody is very well aware of that,” Emmert said.

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - APRIL 04: President of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Mark Emmert speaks to the media ahead of the Men's Final Four at U.S. Bank Stadium on April 04, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Maxx Wolfson/Getty Images)
NCAA president Mark Emmert says college sports can't happen without students returning to campus. (Photo by Maxx Wolfson/Getty Images)

What will happen if conferences start playing at different times?

Emmert, who appeared in the interview with NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline, said there will be a certain amount of time (likely six weeks for football, Hainline said) athletes need to physically prepare for their seasons. And with schools reopening at different times, that will likely impact scheduling and could lead to some temporary rule changes.

“All of the various member committees and the conferences are talking right now about what does it mean if we have that sort of scenario where we’ve got different opening times or different opening models,” Emmert said. “For example, if a conference has some schools open and some schools not, you can’t run a regular schedule. How do you adjust all of the rules to provide as much flexibility as you can to let student athletes have a good experience in that season?”

NCAA rules require FBS schools to play at least nine games, with five at home. The season is scheduled to begin the first weekend in September with a handful of teams opening play the last weekend in August. The large majority of FBS teams schedule 12 regular-season games.

“Will that mean that some school doesn’t play as full a schedule as another school and that may create some inequity in their ability to participate in a championship? Possibly. And we’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there,” Emmert said.

As Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel pointed out, the NCAA does not have national jurisdiction over these conferences:

We’ve reminded you in this space many times that no one is in charge. The NCAA will have little say in football’s return. The conference commissioners are meeting every day on Zoom, but there’s still a worry that leagues are going to eventually scatter to uphold their best interests.

Will schools in heavily impacted areas in Los Angeles, the Bay Area and in the Northeast get left behind? It’s certainly trending that way, if you parse the comments of the commissioners. They’re ready to mutate, regionalize and do whatever it takes to play a season.

“The fact that we’re not assured of a single nationalized approach to this reflects one of our biggest challenges,” a Power Five athletic director told Yahoo Sports on Thursday.

Will there be fans in the stands?

The NCAA is following a phased approach based on federal guidelines, and Emmert pointed to the “middle or end of June” as a timeframe for schools to begin making tangible decisions about whether or not students can safely return to campus.

Both Hainline and Emmert emphasized a “higher level” of testing is needed and games being played with tens of thousands of fans in the stands is unlikely to happen right away.

"Just because there's some regulation that's been lifted doesn't mean that automatically means you should immediately put 105,000 fans in a football stadium," Emmert said. "I think that the proper thing to do, the sensible thing to do is to do a phased approach that the [NCAA medical team] has been talking about and the federal government has been talking about.

“It's plausible to me that early in the season, let's just stick with football, you see a very limited fan access, but by later in the season, as things develop, hopefully in a very positive way, you all of sudden can see larger fan bases attending. It’s not clear to me socially where communities are and whether or not 100,000 people are ready to go sit in a stadium side-by-side quite yet. That’s the other piece of this — making sure people have choices they can make and are comfortable with.”

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