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LEVARSE: Penn State, college football receive pivotal benchmarks for return to normalcy

DEREK LEVARSE
(Wilkes-Barre) Times-Leader (TNS)
James Franklin

The convoys to State College would have started picking up Friday. But the lots surrounding Beaver Stadium will be empty on Saturday.

With the Blue-White Game and its weekend activities canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, Penn State shifted the festivities online, encouraging virtual tailgates with the university streaming a game to watch and Nittany Lions coaches set to drop in on video calls with fans.

The question that remains is how long will it take for in-person tailgates and live games to resume in Happy Valley? The Lions are scheduled to open their season at home on Sept. 5, but there still are few answers with the country in its second month of lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

But some clues started to form this week for Penn State and college football fans in general.

Commissioners weigh in: Perhaps the most significant development came Wednesday when the commissioners of various conferences spoke with Vice President Mike Pence and stressed that college football wouldn’t be able to start up in 2020 without campuses being open.

In other words, there’s no chance that players would return to prepare for a season if it wasn’t deemed safe for the student body at large to be back.

For Penn State in particular, the university went to remote learning last month for the rest of the spring semester. And on Thursday, the announcement came that it would continue through both of the school’s two summer sessions of classes, with the caveat that improving conditions could open things back up before the fall.

“While the plan calls for online instruction for Summer Session II, the university is preparing in case health dynamics shift and students could safely return to campuses for in-person instruction,” Penn State said in a statement. “Any such decisions and related processes for welcoming students back will be made based on guidance from government and health authorities and include careful planning focused first and foremost on the health and well-being of students, faculty and staff. More information will be shared as the situation continues to evolve.”

Typically, the Lions would have their entire roster, including incoming freshmen, on campus by July to start classes ahead of training camp at the start of August. That may not be an option in the current environment.

Planning for multiple scenarios: Lions coach James Franklin and his staff have been trying to plan for multiple scenarios.

“We had already worked on about six different (practice) models,” Franklin said. “So, if we were able to get back in a month, if we were able to get back in six weeks, if we were able to get back in two months, if we were able to get back in, whatever the time period was. We started kind of breaking it out. What’s this going to look like from a football perspective for us?”

Franklin and athletic director Sandy Barbour met last month with their athletic trainers and sports scientists and determined about two months of preparation would be needed for players to be able to play a season, ramping up from workouts to practices to games.

The main concern, Barbour said, is injury prevention and not asking players to do too much too soon.

“For football, we think that 60-day window is about right,” Barbour said.

More virtual instruction: While the physical aspect is a top issue, the NCAA took a step on Thursday to helping along teams’ mental preparation. Starting next week, coaches will be allowed to double their virtual instruction time with players, going from four to eight hours of “nonphysical countable activities” per week through at least the end of May.

That includes “film review, chalk talks and team meetings,” the NCAA said in a statement, adding that the period could be extended after a review in mid-May.

“This change not only allows coaches to continue to educate their student-athletes but also fosters the connectivity that comes with team-based activities,” council chair M. Grace Calhoun said in a statement. “Regular, individual check-ins between student-athletes and coaches remain permissible and are encouraged.”

Fauci gives positive news: Sports in general also got some some positive news this week as the public face of the country’s medical response endorsed the idea of resuming play under certain conditions.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, laid out the plan for sports to return — possibly as soon as this summer — Wednesday on the Snapchat show “Good Luck America.”

“There’s a way of doing that,” said Fauci, who has been the national face of the pandemic response, frequently appearing at the president’s daily briefings. “Nobody comes to the stadiums. Put them in big hotels, wherever you want to play. Keep them very well-surveilled, but have them tested like every week, and make sure they don’t wind up infecting each other or their families, and just let them play the season out.”

College sports a different animal, compared to pro sports: It’s a start, but it’s a model for pro sports rather than the college game.

College athletes are not paid and do not have a union to collectively bargain the conditions of a return to the field. And while playing games without fans is an option being considered by pro leagues, Barbour said she didn’t foresee it happening with college football.

In all, it makes for a tough sell for Penn State’s season to start on time. But gradually, the overall picture is beginning to clear.

”In a perfect world, we could lock these things down in the next couple of months and get back to things that are similar to what they’ve been in the past,” Franklin said. “If this goes into the fall, with the revenue that football brings in, that’s a whole new conversation.

“Penn State, our administration, understands the impact this has on the community. This is a major challenge. Number one is health and safety, and number two is financial responsibility for our community and university and state.”