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With uncertainty hanging over college football season, it’s okay to say ‘I don’t know’

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” - Voltaire

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 30 Ohio State at Michigan Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit says something poignant, people tend to pay attention, especially when dark clouds are hanging over the upcoming college football season.

In March, Herbstreit cast a major shadow over the season even happening, and now in July he feels differently. Herbstreit went from being shocked if a season happened, to being surprised if a season didn’t transpire.

Herbstreit in March

  • “I’ll be shocked if we have NFL football this fall, if we have college football. I’ll be so surprised if that happens.”
  • “Just because from what I understand, people that I listen to, you’re 12 to 18 months from a vaccine. I don’t know how you let these guys go into locker rooms and let stadiums be filled up and how you can play ball. I just don’t know how you can do it with the optics of it.”
  • “Next thing you know you got a locker room full of guys that are sick. And that’s on your watch? I wouldn’t want to have that.”
  • “You don’t all of the sudden come up with something in July or August and say, ‘Okay we’re good to go’ and turn ‘em loose!”

Herbstreit in July

  • “By the end of July or early August, as much as they’re trying to push this thing down the road, they have to make the decision. If they say ‘hey guys, it’s too dangerous and there are too many risks. We can’t play college football this fall,’ I don’t think — I would be surprised if they canceled. I think they would keep postponing, keep pushing and hoping that at some point, the data starts to come down. Because as you know, the data, it just about seems almost every day, is higher and higher.”
  • “I think they’re holding on as long as they can, hoping that those numbers start to decline and go back to where we were 5-7 weeks ago. But I think a lot of us were optimistic at that point. A lot of us were optimistic, and then all of a sudden in the past four weeks, it’s just gone in a different direction.”

Herbstreit’s recent comments are during a week where America’s new coronavirus cases are up 19.7% from a week ago with the national death count up 19% during the same timeframe, according to a internal Federal Emergency Management Agency memo. Further, 19 states recorded their single day case record.

The graphs are going up, which makes it more difficult for programs, especially in hotspots, to have a low amount of positive tests on their team. The NCAA’s guidelines call for testing players once a week and within 72 hours after a game.

“I would be a lot more comfortable with this plan for the Ivy League than the Big 12,” Emory University epidemiologist Zachary Binney said. “This feels like a plan that might work decently in areas without a lot of community cases. In areas with more cases and more community spread, I think there is a very real likelihood of somebody being missed by this testing protocol and getting on the field.” There are some programs with low positive cases such as Oklahoma (latest round of tests yielded zero positive cases) while others like Texas Tech had 23 at one time last month (players and staff). To get the whole country on the same page all at once, or even one geographical region for that matter, is a difficult task.

The crux of this article is to acknowledge that nobody truly knows what’s going to happen next. Herbstreit’s thoughts in March could wind up being correct, and his recent viewpoint may prevail instead. That’s where we are, we’re just trying to make predictions when the climate is unpredictable and can change at any moment for the better, and for the worse.

This is not an attempt to pick on Mr. Herbstreit, far from it. In fact, I’ve had a similar up and down that happens to match his ebbs and flows on the issue. Maybe cases will go down in the next few weeks and football will start somewhat on time. Maybe the cases do not go down whatsoever by the time August rolls around. Or, as Herbstreit eluded to, the NCAA postpones the start of the season to buy themselves a little more time, hoping (once again) that cases go down.

What doesn’t help any optimism is NCAA President Mark Emmert taking anything but a proactive approach, instead opting to throw his hands up in the air while conferences implement their own protocols. “If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic,” Emmert said. Fair enough, but how about working with federal and state officials, putting out PSA’s that could help curb the spread. Anything. “I really wish we’d have a commissioner of college football,” North Carolina coach Mack Brown said. “We wouldn’t have different leagues doing different things and so much uncertainty. If we were more uniform and all on the same page... then we wouldn’t be in the position we are in right now.”

“Football is the lifeblood of our country in my opinion,” LSU head coach Ed Orgerson said this week. There’s some truth to his opinion. For some people football is therapy. Some even find the game to be spiritual in some sense, bonding with mass amounts of other humans that have the same passion. A fall without football would be downright sad.

Maybe with more schools opting to move a large portion of their courses to a virtual format it will mean less students on campus, which in turn would lower the percentage of virus transmission for football players and staff alike.

While no student-athlete will be required to be in an NBA like bubble, maybe most players will be willing to self-isolate as much as they can in order to have a season. Maybe tomorrow there will be a breakthrough treatment, maybe in the next couple weeks one of the over 150 coronavirus vaccine trials (some of which have shown to have potential) will make another sizable leap.

Good or bad, all we have is a ‘maybe’ to attach to tomorrow and every day thereafter in 2020. As the Red Hot Chili Peppers put it, “the more I see the less I know for sure”.