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Making the call on college football will be the hardest decision in sports

John Romano | Between the pressure on athletic budgets that depend on football revenue and the fanaticism of some fan bases, university presidents have a thankless decision coming up.

So Major League Baseball is willing to cut its season in half and play without fans in stadiums.

Seems prudent, even if it is sad and unprecedented. And you can bet a nation of baseball fans will solemnly nod their heads in agreement. They react this way because they are nerdy. And old. I know this because I am one of them.

At the same time, word is spreading that college football is also in danger of dramatic alterations.

Too many governors and university presidents seem inclined to severely curtail or even postpone the season. And you can bet a nation of college football fans will lose their freakin’ minds. They’ll react this way because they are passionate. And nuts. I know this because I’ve spent 40 years watching them tailgate.

A plague ain’t got nothing on these people. Just you watch. If football is played in the fall, Auburn fans will happily empty their hoard of toilet paper just to throw it at Toomer’s Corner.

That fanaticism is what’s going to make the next few weeks so interesting. And potentially nasty. The dynamics in college football will make it far more difficult to navigate during a pandemic than the NFL, NBA or NHL.

Related: Could college football start without every team? It has before

For one thing, colleges are in a much more tenuous position financially than pro sports leagues. Football programs provide the cash needed to support nearly every other NCAA sport. So while a shortened MLB season may eat into an owner’s profits, a drop in football revenues could completely wipe out a school’s athletic program.

On top of that, there is no centralized source of power. The NCAA may be the umbrella organization, but the major conferences actually wield the most influence. Which sets up the possibility that the Southeastern Conference could go one direction, and the Big 10 could go a completely different way. Or 10 league teams could decide to play a full schedule, while two other programs choose to postpone the season.

The USF football team runs onto the field before facing Memphis at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa last November. [Times (2019)]

“There will be great disparity in this. The NCAA will do what it can to regulate it, but you will have certain instances where schools aren’t open and others are, or states haven’t reopened and some have," Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a recent Zoom call with reporters. “What’s the record consequence of someone deciding they can’t play or having a week they can’t play because of an outbreak?

“Very different circumstances than the pro sports, who I think can figure out how to begin all at once despite state differences. Most of our members are state institutions.”

Related: Critical to have widespread testing before college sports return: NCAA’s top doctor

It’s not unrealistic to think this might break along geographic and cultural lines. Political leaders in California and Washington seem to be re-opening more cautiously than, say, the governors of Georgia and Alabama.

So what does that look like on university campuses in mid-July, when coaches seem to agree that preseason workouts must begin if the season is to start on time? Are some schools going to get an early start, while others wait for students to be welcomed back in classrooms?

And will some conferences limit travel to neighboring states, or limit games to league opponents? What about proposals to have a shortened season that doesn’t even begin until after the Super Bowl in February?

And how much input will boosters have, considering how cash-strapped athletic budgets may be?

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey recently told Jacksonville radio station 1010 XL that he is hopeful member institutions will continue to work together but didn’t seem confident it would happen.

“There is room for different conferences to make different decisions," he said. “If there’s a couple of programs that aren’t able, does that stop everyone? I’m not sure it does."

Because the college football season is nearly four months away, conference commissioners and university officials have a little more cushion than baseball owners. They can continue to monitor the spread of the coronavirus and the progress of available tests and vaccines.

But that also means they could face more pressure from fans to open up stadium gates, and play a full schedule. College football isn’t just the lifeblood of athletic departments, it’s also a major economic driver for university towns.

Related: Florida Tech eliminates football because of coronavirus pandemic

At this point, even the politicians are unsure of what direction they will go. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine recently told the Paul Finebaum show on ESPN radio that he wasn’t sure if college football would be played in his state in 2020.

“I don’t think we know," he said. “And anyone who tells you they know is making it up."