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Can football student-athletes return if college students don’t?

Florida and USF won’t have on-campus classes this summer. What does that mean for the 2020 college football season?
When will fans be filling Ben Hill Griffin Stadium again? It's hard to say.
When will fans be filling Ben Hill Griffin Stadium again? It's hard to say. [ Times ]
Published Apr. 7, 2020
Updated Apr. 7, 2020

As public health officials sort through data, models and curves on the COVID-19 pandemic, the sports world is left trying to read the tea leaves about when games will return to some semblance of normalcy.

Tea leaves like these: What should we make of the fact that Florida and USF won’t return to traditional, on-campus classes at all this summer? And what, if anything, does that mean for the 2020 college football season?

Players typically report to preseason camp in late July or early August. Ideally, they’d report even sooner this year because almost every team had some/all of its spring practices canceled and because many players don’t have access to adequate training facilities. If nothing else, they’ll need the extra time to get back into game shape.

Related: Classes at UF, USF to stay online through summer

But now that summer classes are only online, the idea of getting players back on campus earlier faces another potential hurdle. If it’s too unsafe for 25 students to gather for an English class, how can it be safe enough for 85 scholarship players (plus coaches and support staff) to gather for football practice? Will schools be okay taking on that sort of liability? Will players and their families be okay accepting that amount of risk?

To paraphrase Yahoo! Sports’ Pete Thamel: Can you have student-athletes on campus if there are no students?

Maybe, if the conditions are right and coronavirus tests are more effective and easier to get. South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner recently told The Athletic that he could envision allowing athletes on campus, even if the rest of the student body is not, “if in fact the numbers dictated that we were safe.”

Then again, Tanner said that his school president and board of trustees would have the final say. And just because South Carolina would be comfortable in that scenario doesn’t mean that Florida, USF, Vanderbilt or Georgia would be. Every school is different, and the politics in each state vary, too.

Related: Tampa Bay’s NFL draft prospects tackle a new normal in getting noticed

Four weeks ago Monday, coach Dan Mullen wasn’t asked about COVID-19 at all during his pre-spring ball news conference. Considering how much has changed since then, it’d be foolish for a sports writer to predict where things will stand four months from now. Officially, the SEC has canceled everything through May 31 while everything after that — including media days in mid-July — remains up in the air.

But we know now that at least two state schools will not be back business as usual before the fall.

And that makes it a little harder to envision football returning to normal by then, too.