NCAA's Emmert: Shortened Fall Season Could Be Safer

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NCAA president Mark Emmert envisions a fall sports season that could benefit from fewer games played over a shortened timeframe.

Emmert's comments came during an interview with ESPN senior writer Heather Dinich, as student-athletes prepare to compete in sports amid the coronavirus pandemic.

"We do get to see what happens when people return to campus," Emmert said. "You get to learn a lot from what's going on with professional sports. We get to see how the testing protocols emerge and how that can be more effective, especially if we can get antigen testing going, for keeping track of the virus on campuses. The fact a delay could provide us with time to do all that could be very, very useful.

"Also, the move to a smaller number of games can be really helpful because you've got bigger breaks between games then, and you could provide flexibility around schedules," he added. " ... If you have to quarantine a team or a big chunk of a team, you've got time to do that and you've got time to adjust. ... I think having fewer contests and doing them over a delayed period of time could be very, very helpful."

As reported by Dinish, the NCAA so far has issued medical guidelines and protocols, adjusted rules and granted waivers to provide conferences with more flexibility than usual. Its board of governors has begun to seriously consider the possibility of canceling or postponing 22 fall championships for sports such as soccer, women's volleyball and FCS football. The regular-season games and schedules, though, are at the discretion of the individual schools or their conferences. Emmert said he's still hopeful the November championships are played, but if they are canceled, he said it doesn't mean that the regular seasons couldn't still happen.

Normally, the NCAA fall championships include play-in rounds that occur on campuses, but the NCAA decided recently to use predetermined sites this year to control the environment and create something like a "bubble" at those sites.

"In the case of a bowl game or the CFP, you're talking about a championship game. Can you create a bubble with enough lead time to have two teams play each other safely? The answer to that may be yes," Emmert said. "The FCS is a round-robin championship with 20 teams participating and a full-on championship event. That's a very different and much more challenging environment than adding one or two more games to a season with a lot of space in between."

Emmert, who said canceling the NCAA basketball tournament and hockey's Frozen Four this spring was "awful," acknowledged that student-athletes want to return to their sports knowing they'll be competing for a championship. But staging championships at the college level, including the team travel required, may pose the same challenges already being encountered as Major League Baseball teams try to begin playing an abbreviated schedule. The type of stay-in-one-place "bubble" being employed by the NBA isn't an option for college sports.

"These are college students, and they're at 1,100 different colleges," Emmert said. "For the fans and others who say, 'Well, run it like the NBA,' that's a very nice thought, but it's utterly unrealistic and inappropriate for college athletes."

Dinish also points to the lingering worst-case scenario of no fall season at all. In order to feel it's safe for fall sports to continue, Emmert said, "We need to clearly see the indicators of viral spread be moving in a much better direction than they are right now."

The challenges are immediate, with no end in sight.

"I've talked to dozens of students," Emmert said. "They want to go to campus, they want to play, they want this to return to something like normal. We all want everything to be normal on campus, but the fact is nothing is going to be normal on campus — any campus. That creates all kinds of challenges and problems for college sports. It's easy to think about college sports as some kind of analog to professional sports, but professional sports leagues have 30 or so teams. We have 19,000 teams across the NCAA over all three seasons, and in the fall we'll run 22 championships. The idea of making that all fit into anything that looks like normal is a challenge to say the least."

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