While the Big Ten and Pac-12 elected not to compete this fall in college football, three of the sport’s five major conferences1 and more than 70 Football Bowl Subdivision programs will, with games outside the Power Five already underway.
Many fans are thrilled. But epidemiologists are worried about the consequences of college football amid a pandemic that has killed more than 188,000 people in the U.S. and induced chronic health complications for survivors, including the hearts of student-athletes. While all other NCAA fall sports championships have been canceled, the $4 billion-plus enterprise — and lifeblood of athletic departments around the country — plays on.
Going into this season, the Southeastern Conference is still college football’s preeminent force, a machine that has led all conferences in attendance for more than two decades and last fiscal year brought in $721 million in revenue. It’s home to many of the most rabid fan bases in the country, an especially vocal contingent of college football tribalism unafraid to announce, with frequency, that the sport means more here.
It’s also increasingly home to campuses teeming with COVID-19 cases.
Within days of campus reopening, the University of Alabama reported enough positive cases to field five football teams. The University of South Carolina later reported one of the highest number of college cases on record. Auburn, Tennessee and Vanderbilt all canceled practices. Ole Miss, which did not cancel practice, experienced an outbreak within the athletic community. LSU quarantined at least one-quarter of its roster.
According to The New York Times tracker,2 three of the four college campuses with the most cases in the country as of Sept. 2 were in the SEC — the University of Alabama, the University of South Carolina and Auburn University.3 The conference is home to seven of the 28 campuses that reported at least 500 total cases, by the Times’ count.
More than 60 percent of SEC football rosters are populated by Black men, according to the NCAA demographic database. These men are staring down a virus that disproportionately affects the Black community.
Not only are a majority of these athletes vulnerable and attending classes on campuses awash in active cases, they’re also competing for schools whose leaders don’t seem terribly interested in implementing sufficient safeguards. This inability to protect the student body isn’t lost on the players. “How can y’all help us?” Ole Miss linebacker MoMo Sanogo asked in a call with conference leadership before the SEC announced its plan to go forward with games this fall.
With conference play just around the corner, the answer to Sanogo’s question appears to be: by bringing thousands of strangers to watch him and his teammates play.
Football ticketing revenue alone generates more than $1 billion annually for Power Five universities; much of it will vanish in the pandemic, but not all. Conference commissioners are leaving stadium capacity arrangements up to member schools with the hope that local, state and campus guidelines will influence those decisions. Some programs in major conferences, like the University of Kansas of the Big 12 and Syracuse University of the ACC, will begin a fan-free start to the season out of caution. But so far, none of the 14 SEC schools is taking that route.4
College football cathedrals are a dime a dozen in the South. By capacity, the SEC boasts half of the 10 largest venues in the sport. Of the 14 member schools, 10 rank in the top 30.
And while nearly all have announced capacity limitations of 20 to 25 percent of crowd capacity, that will still amount to thousands of people: The 10 SEC schools that have released gameday plans have all said they will let in at least 15,000 fans. Alabama, Auburn and Georgia are expected to bring in at least 17,000 fans for home games, while Texas A&M is anticipating more than 25,000. Each of those schools ranks in the top 20 of The New York Times’s coronavirus tracker.
The public health crisis also hasn’t stopped dozens of teams from laughing in the face of transparency. ESPN’s Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach recently polled every Power Five conference member about COVID-19 test results for student-athletes; nearly half declined to disclose them. The largest contingent hailed from the SEC, with 10 of the 14 member schools choosing not to reveal the number of positive results. Almost one-third of Power Five responders wouldn’t so much as lay out what the COVID-19 protocols were.
Those protocols aren’t only a problem in the Power Five. Players and staff at Colorado State, a Mountain West Conference member, say they had been told not to report symptoms of the virus, while the coach at Liberty praised a lack of positive tests on his team before revealing that students hadn’t been tested for two weeks. Is it surprising that nearly three-fourths of Idaho’s football team didn’t feel comfortable playing this season?
In a matter of months, the pageantry of college football’s sesquicentennial gave way to a challenge unprecedented in scope. “Best advice I’ve received since COVID-19: Be patient,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey wrote on Twitter. “… Can we play? I don’t know.” With a vast cloud of uncertainty blanketing the sport, more than half of all FBS programs are still planning to forge on. And in the SEC, packed stadiums will be the norm, as thousands of fans bear witness to a college football season unlike any other.