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Colonial Athletic Association Commissioner Joe D’Antonio said league officials are trying to stay optimistic that there will be a college football season in 2020.
However, he readily admitted there are still a lot of unanswered questions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
D’Antonio said the CAA is following the lead of the Football Bowl Subdivision schools and it has a variety of contingency plans, depending upon what the FBS schools, the largest and most powerful in Division I athletics, do.
The CAA is a Football Championship Subdivision conference that features many smaller institutions with less athletics funding.
D’Antonio said the CAA needs to know something within the next 30 days to be able to proceed.
“We are very closely monitoring what the FBS folks are doing,” he said in terms of building a schedule.
“If they’re going to play a full, 11-game schedule, we’ll look to follow suit,” D’Antonio said. “If they’re going to play 11 but move the start of the season back a few weeks, or start the season the first week of October, we’re ready to pivot in that regard.”
University of Maine athletics director Ken Ralph said there must be uniformity between the FBS and FCS arrangements.
The Black Bears are scheduled to play their season opener Sept. 3 at Ball State, an FBS school that competes in the Mid-American Conference. For that to work, the schedules must align.
“The dates have to line up,” Ralph said.
One of the challenging aspects for the CAA is that the 12 football teams are from nine different states and each has different social distancing guidelines and COVID-19 restrictions.
Schools with more stringent guidelines would be at a disadvantage in terms of their ability to host games.
D’Antonio said it would be difficult to establish conference-wide regulations because of the potential variances from state to state.
Schools in FBS conferences are better positioned to absorb the loss of gate receipts if fans are not allowed in stadiums because most have lucrative television contracts.
FCS conferences also have TV deals, but the financial rewards pale in comparison, so they must rely more on revenue from ticket sales and concessions.
“We could [play without fans] but we would lose ticket revenue which would impact our bottom line,” Ralph said.
“If push comes to shove, we could play without fans,” D’Antonio said. “But the safest place to be in a social-distance setting is outside and we don’t play any football games inside.
He believes it would be possible to play with fans in the stands.
The season could hinge on whether schools welcome students back to campus, but Ralph pointed out that Fresno State, San Jose State and San Diego State are planning to play football even though their campuses will be closed.
The California State University system has already canceled in-person classes for the fall semester.
Ralph questioned whether UMaine would do something similar.
“You have to remember that bringing back 400 athletes is very different than bringing back 10,000 students and 3,000 faculty and staff,” he said.
Ralph is happy with the work done by UMaine committees to ensure that the school is ready to welcome fall sports athletes into a safe environment.
“We have a group of folks who have worked very hard developing [the plans]. The sports medicine and sports performance staffs have done great work in planning how to keep people safe,” Ralph said.
He said UMaine’s science advisory board has done a wonderful job exploring testing options for when the athletes return.
“We haven’t finalized our testing system yet but we’re getting very close,” Ralph said.
The NCAA allowed college football teams to begin holding voluntary practices on June 1. However, according to Inside Higher Education, 23 Clemson University football players tested positive for the coronavirus and 30 players from defending national champion Louisiana State University either tested positive or were in contact with people who tested positive.
“That was eye-opening,” said Ralph, pointing to the fact the testing enabled the schools to discover who was sick so they could be treated or quarantined.
The NCAA has issued guidelines for football, including starting preseason two weeks earlier than normal.
But UMaine must take several steps before athletes will be allowed back on campus.
“Once new guidelines are issued, we work with our on-campus emergency operations committee. A plan is submitted that ensures we can keep people safe and if the committee approves it, it is sent to the president [Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy] for final approval,” Ralph said.
UMaine’s other fall sports teams compete in the America East Conference. Ralph said the league is waiting to see what the schools’ academic calendars look like before putting a plan in place.
“We know everybody is anxious to get back to normal but there is absolutely no getting around the fact that we have to put safety ahead of everything else. If one person gets hurt or sick because we were reckless, I would struggle with that,” Ralph said.