There are benefits to structure, especially when it comes to responding to crises. We’ve seen that challenge come to light with the COVID-19 response, as individual states have made their own plans with varying degrees of success without a ton of structure from the federal government (don’t at me - this isn’t a political statement).
Let’s bring that same concept into sports. The reality is that the governing bodies surrounding different sports, franchises and levels of play are operated differently to the point where some sports are set up for success while others are left to flounder — a fact that is exacerbated by COVID-19.
Yes, there are factors of the sports themselves that make effective implementation of COVID response plans nearly impossible for some contact sports with large teams (football), while other team sports have the benefit of smaller teams and less contact (basketball). We’ve already seen how Major League Baseball has struggled to contain infections while the NBA has, to this point, had zero new infections.
But back to college sports. The NCAA is overseeing return to play plans for dozens of sports with varying degrees of contact and team size. These programs are also tasked with additional layers of coordination and oversight from conference authorities, individual academic institutions and even the states in which they are based.
Which obviously leads to the question: Why is there no college football commissioner? What about basketball? Or hockey? Sure, it adds another layer of complication to the aforementioned list, but, to the point above, factors of the sports themselves mean necessarily unique COVID response plans. These nuances to individual sports makes trying to organize a return to football and a return to basketball in the same way seem almost asinine.
If we had this type of structure, it almost feels like there could have been a possibility of college football having an out of conference season, because the smallest governing unit for multiple teams - the conference - could be consolidated across individual sports. Why is this organization structure helpful? Consider the governing structure of college athletics. In other words, the NCAA.
There are literally dozens of sports and hundreds of schools, creating thousands of permutations of how programs can be organized. By comparison, Roger Goodell is responsible solely for one sport with 32 franchises. For some non-NCAA sponsored sports, there are varying governing bodies responsible for implementing scheduling, eligibility and rules of play, which at least simplifies governance to a single sport which usually has limited reach. However, the closest comparison to the NCAA outside of college sports might be the International Olympic Committee.
Sure, there are good commissioners and bad commissioners. Undoubtedly, the NBA has had the best lineage in recent years between the late David Stern and Adam Silver. Granted, it’s also undoubtedly easier to manage a league with significantly fewer players.
Back to the more local structure, that of conferences, which is bonkers by comparison. Kevin Warren, the newly-dubbed commissioner of the Big Ten, is responsible for 14 schools with from 17 (Purdue) to 37 (Ohio State) varsity sports. (Yeah, shockingly Northwestern has 19!).
Rather than focusing on conferences, would it have been easier, for instance, to limit scheduling to in-state play, bypassing conference scheduling and allowing teams to limit travel even more and be held only to the restrictions of the states they are in? For example, while the prospect of playing Ohio University, Cincinnati and Akron might not be particularly exciting, at least there are no mandatory out-of-state quarantine orders that would further limit travel.
Sure, states will probably allow exemptions for athletes, but what an additional burden of coordination for teams to have to deal with! Let us consider one Big Ten game as an example. Nebraska is scheduled to open with Rutgers Sept. 5. Currently, Nebraska is one of 35 states on the 14-day travel advisory list to New Jersey. That means anyone traveling to New Jersey from Nebraska has to quarantine for 14 days. There’s also the issue of travel (why this particular example is relevant), in that the Huskers would have to either drive 19+ hours or fly, with hundreds of players and personnel going through two airports. Either way, there’s extreme opportunity — between restaurant meals, hotel stays and other interaction — to interact with others in many states and potentially spread COVID.
The closest thing we currently have to a commissioner in college football might be the College Football Playoff Selection Committee, which analyzes all FBS schools for the sole purpose of playoff selection. If this committee were expanded, say, to consider COVID response structure, including scheduling, testing protocols, practice progression and more, we could at least count on having consistency across the board in the sport the way we’ve seen for basketball (minus the bubble).
While football is inherently a lot harder of a sport to manage infections, as we’ve discussed, given team and staff size and the contact-based nature of the game, building these synergies through a unified, football-wide response would surely prove a more effective measure than relying on the NCAA as a governing body.
This concept could be expanded to other sports. Consider how simple it seems (in concept though certainly not in reality) for the NBA’s bubble model to flow down to college basketball.
The bottom line is that while it feels impossible to manage return to play on the whole for all college sports, given the different governing structures to which programs are beholden, not one of these structures actually has the power to build a holistic return plan for an individual sport. The infrastructure simply is not there. Having a single power dedicated to building that infrastructure and managing the nuances of an individual sport at the collegiate level could allow significantly greater benefits — both through COVID and in the future.