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COLLINS: A 2020 Penn State football season far more a hope than a certainty this fall

(Wilkes-Barre) Times-Leader (TNS)
Sandy Barbour

Let’s start with the encouraging news, because we don’t get enough of that these days: Since Penn State started its phased reopening of the athletics department in early June, it has tested 102 student-athletes for COVID-19.

Every test that has come back has been negative.

That’s a major victory for quite a few people: players who took care of themselves during the pandemic, for starters; the medical staff that educated them; the coaches that kept them focus; their families; even for Sandy Barbour, who proudly delivered that news Wednesday afternoon. But like pretty much everything in this crazy time, it also comes with a glass of cold water to the eyes.

There are still more hurdles on the road to a fall return of college football than there are on an Olympic track. This road is pothole covered. It is winding and treacherous. And nobody has the map needed to traverse it.

When she met with the media for the first time since March, Barbour, Penn State’s vice president for intercollegiate athletics, attacked that reality with brutal honesty.

Other schools not doing as well: Things are OK at Penn State now, but Barbour has to be as familiar with the numbers as anybody. Clemson reported a whopping 37 players on its roster tested positive for COVID-19. There were at least 30 at LSU, 13 at Texas and “several” at Alabama, according to reports. Bottom line, the way this virus is spreading and with as little as some are choosing to do about preventing that spread, is that 0 positive tests at Penn State is a victory for Penn State. But, it by no means we’re closer to college football’s triumphant return.

“If we are coming dangerously close to crossing any line that endangers our students, our staff, our coaches and our community,” Barbour said during a video conference, “we’re not crossing.”

Clearly, Barbour’s hope and preference is that football can be played this fall. Penn State is slated to kick off its season Sept. 5 at Beaver Stadium, and if that goes off as scheduled and without complications, it will be considered a raging success. But 66 days before that game, Barbour was reticent to predict what that game could look like, or what the next few months leading up to it could bring.

Lots of questions: Will Penn State be able to bring some fans into the traditionally raucous stadium? Maybe. Might it have to play football in front of empty bleachers? Maybe. They still don’t know.

Will the schedule, as it reads now, be the one James Franklin’s Nittany Lions actually play in the fall? Maybe.

But again, maybe not. Barbour conceded there could be other programs that decide not to fulfill all or part of their schedules. It already has happened in other sports and Penn State’s scheduled Sept. 19 game against San Jose State has been rumored to be on life support

“I’ll be very honest,” Barbour said. “We just, at this point, want to make sure that we can get in as many games as are safe and healthy.”

Easier said than done: The way numbers are spiking nationwide right now, that’s going to be easier said than done.

“There’s no doubt there’s been a little bit of pessimism in the last couple of weeks that we really hadn’t had in four-to-six weeks,” Barbour said. “The approach that I’m taking to this is that it’s part of the ebb and flow of the virus. Obviously, my hope is that as people start looking at the masking and social distancing again and all of the precautions, and maybe recommitting to the seriousness of this, that we’ll see it flatten out.

“What we’re doing is planning. Given the uncertainty, we’ve had to work on a lot of plans, a lot of different scenarios. When the time comes, if it’s healthy and safe to do it, we’ll obviously do it. If it’s not, we won’t.”

That means hosting fans, or not. That means replacing games, or not. That means playing, or not.

Doing the right things: There’s a sense after talking to Barbour that Penn State is trying to do all of this right, and ethically.

She said the university hasn’t done what so many others have asked of their student-athletes, demanding they sign a COVID-19 waiver. Instead, Penn State players have been asked to sign a pledge to follow school policy and CDC guidelines and, of course, doctors’ orders. She noted the effect a drastically reduced number of fans allowed into the stadium would have on the local economy — “We know it would be a mess,” she said — and added the athletic department’s “revenue shortfalls” likely will necessitate coaches take across-the-board pay cuts. But she reiterated over and over that while playing the games is a necessity to make the money, the money isn’t going to cut the student-athletes’ health and safety off at the knees.

A lot can change: How that works out, how any of it works out, remains to be seen. A lot can change in two days, never mind two months. Penn State is controlling a bad situation as well as anybody, and certainly better than others have in states where the rules weren’t as strict or the shutdowns as severe as they were here.

Just a reminder, though: It’s considerably easier to control a couple hundred kids than it is to watch over 46,000. The general student population returns to University Park in late August. And the situation with the virus has to look much better by then for anything to be guaranteed at Beaver Stadium afterward.