Yesterday the Atlantic Coast Conference announced its plans to return to play, including an eleven game football schedule and a conference schedule for Olympic sports that satisfies the NCAA’s minimum sponsorship requirements. Like any plan, it has its pros and cons, things it accomplishes well and things that it lacks. Here are our thoughts:
Things That Are Good
The ACC is listening to the experts: Along with the return to play announcement came with mandatory guidelines formed by the conference’s medical advisory group. As we reported back in May, the ACC formed this group with doctors representing all member institutions in order to address the conference’s plans post-pandemic. The group’s recommendations are sound: it requires mandatory and relatively frequent testing for high risk sports such as football, mandatory compliance with contact tracing, mandatory masks, and, possibly most important, reporting of positive tests to opponents. The recommendations do leave some risk on the table unabated, but given the parameters there is a lot to like about those recommendations.
Sport sponsorship requirements will be handled: As we reported back in May, all programs have certain contest requirements to be met in order to have been considered to play a full Division I schedule. For a number of programs, the current climate was almost certainly going to lead to a result where a conference schedule in its previous state would not have been enough to meet those requirements. The ACC fixed that problem by making sure that the conference schedule, the schedule the least likely to be altered outside of a major problem that would probably alter the nature of collegiate athletics, were sufficient to meet sponsorship requirements (I told you they were important). By also planning for sport championships, the conference did a good job doing their best to ensure that all fall athletes have a chance to compete in odd circumstances.
This is probably the only way for college sports to happen in the fall: At the end of the day, the pandemic is going to rule everything that colleges do, and that extends to athletics. Continuing business as usual is just not an option, especially as other Power 5 conferences moved towards a conference-only schedule. The idea of bubbles were floated around by some in college sports media, and while a bubble was probably the best option for keeping athletes safe, it also would have been exceptionally expensive. I’m absolutely sure that ensuring as much opportunity for competition as possible was on the minds of college sports administrators, but the conversation on return to play would have been a lot different if football’s profit margins were different, and an expensive proposition like a bubble (including hotels, facility rentals, etc.) would have eaten into that profit margin and stretched budgets that are already going to be constrained due to the almost certain loss of gate this year (and even if it’s not a total loss, the gate will take a hit). This was the best way to handle things.
Things That Are Bad
It may not be enough: Right before press time for this article, the Philadelphia Phillies announced that two people in the Phillies system tested positive for Coronavirus, shutting down all activity at Citizens Bank indefinitely. The Phillies already had their games cancelled for the week because of Florida men who potentially doomed the MLB season via group text, but now this news casts even more doubt on the season. As we mentioned earlier this week, any college football plan short of a bubble seems more analogous with Major League Baseball’s plans the leagues with more success containing and keeping out the virus. Testing is good, and contact tracing is good, but at the end of the day there is still a world of exposure that can happen through travel to away games and just in class. At the end of the day, pledges to maintain social distancing are nice and all but these are college kids we’re talking about and things happen (what are the universities going to do, sue unpaid college students and athletes for breach of contract?). There seems to be a lot of risk that can’t be addressed with plans in this state, and while we all want college sports to return, there is still an ocean of risk that needs to be confronted.
Just join the conference already: I’m going to say something unpopular amongst BC people: throwing a lifeline to Notre Dame was probably the right thing to do. As much as we probably would have enjoyed the Irish squirming out of fear for what would become of their pandemic riddled conference schedule, Notre Dame and the ACC have enjoyed a largely symbiotic scheduling relationship (save for bowl season when the relationship when becomes parasitic I'm not bitter you’re bitter). Throwing Notre Dame a lifeline solidifies that relationship, and there is obviously TV money to be had there. However, there is no good reason for Notre Dame to be allowed to participate in the conference championship. The ACC could have absolutely created a situation where games against Notre Dame counted in the standings, or something analogous, without Notre Dame being championship game eligible, the conference does that all the time in basketball whenever someone hires Rick Pitino. But allowing Notre Dame to participate in the conference championship without joining the conference feels like a slap in the face to the programs who made the commitment to the conference. The ACC can’t use Notre Dame in football marketing now, and you can bet that would help a conference that has had some rough times in football lately. If Notre Dame wants to compete in the ACC championship, it can, but price of admission should be one conference membership—otherwise it is an extortion of the conference with the consent and approval of John Douglas Swofford.
At what point do we pull the plug?: To the medical advisory group’s credit, it created guidelines for when the plug should be pulled on games, basically if the situation becomes too dangerous to players, staff and the community to continue. However, the considerations and procedures seem vague. Will it be up to the conference? The schools who have a financial interest in keeping the games going? The student-athletes who, deservedly so, want to play the sports they’ve spent their whole lives getting better at? It’s unclear, and that’s a question that needs to be addressed, because as we saw with the MLB, getting caught flat footed can have disastrous consequences.
Do we really have to play UMass again?: Not really, but the other option might have to be UConn. Yuck.