PSU's James Franklin addresses future, for football and society, on Matt McGloin's podcast

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

James Franklin has already begun to make peace with the idea.

No matter how things unfold with planning the 2020 season, there’s little chance it will feature the crowds of 107,000 at Beaver Stadium that the Penn State coach likes to mention.

“I’m pretty confident at this point we will have football. But I’m not confident it’s going to look and feel like we’re used to seeing,” Franklin told former Nittany Lions quarterback Matt McGloin on the Scranton native’s new podcast.

Franklin said he didn’t expect there will be full stadiums as usual because of the coronavirus pandemic in the latest episode of “The Underrated Hour with Matt McGloin,” which was released Friday.

“I do think with schools like Penn State, we’re going to lose a home-field advantage,” Franklin said. “And not just the difficult environment that Beaver Stadium is to play in for opposing teams, but it’s also the energy that we get driving through all the tailgates on the blue bus and coming up to the stadium and 10,000 fans waiting for us to walk into the stadium. Just the energy and community of feeling of family. It’s going to be very different, no doubt about it.

“But at the end of the day, we’ve gotta do everything we possibly can to make this work. But more importantly, do it in a way that our fans and our student-athletes, coaches and staff are safe and protected. That’s going to be the challenge for all of us, to find that happy balance between those two things.”

PSU players can return Monday: Universities are just now putting into action their plans to play football this fall, starting with bringing players back to campus to begin training.

Penn State went public with its first step in the process late Thursday night, announcing that 75 players will begin the transition back on Monday, with a week of quarantine and testing for COVID-19 coming first. Those who are medically cleared will be able to start voluntary workouts in small groups on June 15.

Of course, Penn State has yet to announce if there will even be in-person classes held for the fall semester — all summer classes are being held online at the moment — but because of the enormous financial impact football has on the school and the surrounding area, all involved are preparing to play if possible.

Franklin wants safety to be paramount: As it is, it’s too early to guess if the Lions will play their opener on Sept. 5 at Beaver Stadium as scheduled. Or who, if anyone, will be allowed to come and watch it in person from the stands. Penn State is, however, trying to judge fans’ comfort levels for attending games through questionnaires that were sent out this week.

In the pros, the plans for the NHL and NBA call for games without any fans in attendance. The NFL has made no decisions but owners are preparing for the possibility of limited crowds for the fall.

“For me, I would hope everyone is leading with what is safe and what is healthy, and being led by doctors and scientists and medical professionals,” Franklin said. “But for me to sit here and tell you there’s not an economic impact with these things would not be transparent, would not be truthful, would not be honest. There is that.

“But what you can’t allow to happen is, you can’t allow the economics to override the decisions of what’s in everybody’s best interest from a health and welfare standpoint.”

Obstacles remain: Franklin’s interview was recorded before Penn State publicly released some of its safety protocols for players and staff on Thursday night. He did acknowledge, however, the obstacles that come with getting back to work.

“We have to deal with the issue that when you’re bringing all these players from at-risk hotspots across the country, there’s challenges that come with that,” Franklin said. “So as you can imagine, we’re being very thorough and detailed with all the policies and procedures that are in place. We’re going to be working out in small groups and wearing protective equipment and things like that.”

The protocols: The university said all involved will be wearing masks when not working out and that the strength and medical staffs will be supervising the situation with detailed instructions for sanitizing.

But there are still plenty of questions that the school has not yet answered publicly, including how often players and staff will be tested and what the plans are in the event that one or more do test positive for COVID-19.

Penn State said that returning players have already began “a prescribed quarantine in preparation for their return to campus,” but the exact timeframe and details of that are not known.

Multiple players, for example, have attended crowded protests in the past week. And others are aiming for more, including starting quarterback Sean Clifford, who wrote on Twitter Friday that he planned to participate in a “Justice For Black Lives” protest on Sunday in State College while tagging teammates Fred Hansard and Tariq Castro-Fields in his message.

"Tough conversations:" The desire of many players to lend their voices against racial injustice and police brutality has added an additional layer to the entire situation, as Franklin well knows.

“I am really excited that we are at a point in our society where I think for the first time in a long time, I see a lot of different people having tough conversations,” Franklin said. “(People) are willing to maybe rethink how they view the world, rethink their position on race in our country. And to me that’s going to be a very important piece to this.

“I think that’s where we’re really going to make the progress that we all want. We gotta do it together. … And that’s gonna be people of color, that’s gonna be white individuals, male and female. All different races, all different religions, all different backgrounds saying that we want something different. We want more.

“I’m very hopeful that this is going to be something that’s going to spur that. And I think one of the things that can’t happen is — a month from now, when maybe things are a little bit more back to normal — we just can’t go back to operating the way it’s always been.”