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What Penn State Coach James Franklin said last week seems simple – “I can’t imagine that right now we’re all going to open at the same time.” – illustrates that there is no one person to make these decisions across college football. Al Goldis/Associated Press

What Penn State Coach James Franklin said in an interview with ESPN last week is only logical given how college football works: “I can’t imagine that right now we’re all going to open at the same time.”

The Big Ten, in which Franklin’s Nittany Lions play, operates in a wholly different climate and culture than does, say, the SEC or the Pac-12. It’s only logical that both the science and the politics that outline how the nation is reacting to the novel coronavirus pandemic would vary from school to school and region to region.

So if you can get your mind to a place where it seems possible to play college football not just this season but this fall – on time – get comfortable with the idea that different schools in different conferences will start on wildly different dates.

This would be like the National League East starting a month before the American League West is ready, the AFC North opening play before the NFC South can imagine it. Those scenarios sound ludicrous and would never happen. You know why? Because both Major League Baseball and the NFL have a commissioner. Love or loathe Rob Manfred or Roger Goodell, but when there’s a decision to be made, we know who’s going to make it.

We need leaders right now, leaders who listen not only to their constituents’ wants and needs but who process the best information and heed the advice of experts. It’s why, when you consider the various contingency plans to open such-and-such sport at so-and-so time, you should ask yourself, “Would this be safe for athletes, support personnel and the surrounding community?” If the answer is even close to “no,” then put those plans back on the shelf. The commissioners who oversee the major American professional sports are asking themselves that question above all others, and their sports won’t return until they can comfortably say, “Yes.”

College football has no commissioner. Now, on the list of college football’s problems, this might not be near the top. (Check the respective salaries of, say, Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney and Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, and you will know where I would like to start.) But at a time like this, when the pandemic leaves us yearning for the best information about how to act and what to do, any entity without a single, steady, strong voice is in danger of listing, perhaps badly.

Bill Hancock is the executive director of the College Football Playoff, but he has control only over the final three games of the season. Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

The highest level of college football isn’t even overseen by the NCAA. That body, for all its flaws, made the right decision all those weeks ago in March – feels like longer, doesn’t it? – to cancel the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments just as the seriousness of the virus was beginning to be understood in this country. Yes, men’s basketball needs a commissioner, too – someone who fully understands the issues facing players and coaches alike. But at least when there were tough calls to make, you knew where to look: directly at Mark Emmert, the NCAA president. His failures are many. He got that one right.

The eyes of those who want to see who will make the decisions about college football this summer and fall – and, let’s be honest, deep into the winter – have to be darting around the nation. Bill Hancock, executive director of the College Football Playoff, would hold some sway – but not over the entire sport, just over the three games that determine its champion. So look to Greg Sankey, commissioner of the SEC, perhaps first and foremost? Sankey and his colleagues at the other four power conferences are talking weekly about all kinds of issues, including how to proceed with a football season.

But to Franklin’s point – one shared by Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick – just because they’re talking doesn’t mean they will come to the same conclusion.

“There’s a significant chance it may not be possible that you produce a season where all members are participating in Division I football in the same way,” Swarbrick said in a Zoom call with reporters last week. “We just have to take the time to figure that out as we go. The critical issue is learning more about that and figuring out a host of questions that come as a byproduct of that. How many games do you need to have a playoff? What would it do to a postseason and the bowl games? What about Heisman Trophies and records? Is a team whose school decides (playing football is unsafe) credited with a forfeit?”

That’s a lot of questions, with no one place to look for answers.

College athletic administrators are under inordinate pressure to stage some sort of football season during the coming academic year because, in so many cases, the existence of their departments depends on fans in the stands and a valuable product on television. The absolute need for money – to support not just football coaches and staffs but field hockey and swimming and on and on – is bound to govern some decisions, particularly in those states that are already dabbling with reopening the economy even as the number infected with the virus nationally continues to climb rapidly.

Given the state-to-state and region-to-region differences, though, who is going to govern what’s equitable nationally? California Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, said last week that “It’s difficult to imagine a stadium that’s filled until we have immunity and until we have a vaccine,” and he went on to wonder aloud about how football linemen might be affected should one test positive.

“What happens to the rest of the line?” he asked. “What happens to the game coming up the next weekend? It’s inconceivable to me that that’s not a likely scenario.”

So put USC, UCLA, Stanford and Cal off the Pac-12 schedule then? USC is supposed to open its season Sept. 5 against Alabama in Arlington, Texas. Could a game between schools from two states handling the virus in vastly different manners be held in a third state, where the regulations vary again?

Whom do you even ask that question?

This isn’t, right now, a discussion about when it will be appropriate to start up college football again, because the honest answer is it’s too early to say. What the pandemic lays bare is a condition that would exist if the virus had never ripped through our country: College football lacks a singular voice to lead the way, whether times are good or bad. What impact will that limitation have on a season that could be played in unprecedented times – in a variety of different manners?


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