Southeast Missouri State became the first higher-profile Football Championship Subdivision team to lose a game to the coronavirus. The school announced earlier this week that its season-opening contest against Dayton was cancelled.
The Cape Girardeau school won the Ohio Valley conference championship last season before losing a first-round playoff game to Illinois State. It was the second straight year the Redhawks made the FCS playoffs.
While SEMO athletic director Brady Barke cautioned against reading too much into the Dayton cancellation — "It was a pretty unique circumstance," he said — he also sounded, well, cautious about the prospects of the upcoming college football season being anything close to normal.
I contacted Barke just to pick his brain about what might happen with SEMO's open date and where he saw things going, considering his school was the first playoff team from last season to announce a cancellation. Now that we're into July and athletes are returning to campuses for summer workouts in preparation for the season, the time is rapidly approaching when conferences, schools and athletic programs will have to make decisions.
We already have some indication where this might be going. The Patriot League last week said athletes would not return to campus before the general student body and that its teams would not fly to competitions and, with rare exceptions, won't have overnight travel during the regular season. That would seem to nix a number of non-conference football games.
A historically Black Division II school, Morehouse College in Georgia, announced it was cancelling its entire football season because the school's president said he couldn't guarantee players' safety. The Southern Heritage Classic game between HBCUs Jackson State and East Tennessee State was cancelled, although Jackson State later scheduled Florida A&M to fill the date.
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The FCS Ivy League, which does not participate in the postseason, said it will make an announcement next week regarding its fall sports schedule. Speculation abounds that it will play a league-only, seven-game football season in the spring.
Meanwhile, some schools have postponed summer workouts as positive coronavirus tests continue to climb among athletes.
As each day passes, the confidence that college football will be played — or played in something that resembles a traditional season — wanes.
"I'm still hopeful we're going to see football," Barke said. "But will it be as we've known it? I think that's really the big question right now."
He said Dayton asked to cancel its game scheduled Sept. 3 because it didn't feel its athletes could properly prepare given coronavirus restrictions. Dayton is a non-scholarship Pioneer Football League team, so its athletes don't return to campus in the summer and that, combined with local guidelines in Ohio that would further impede the Flyers' training camp, caused the school to ask for a cancellation.
Barke said he's trying to find another game to fill the schedule, in no small part because it was a home game and SEMO needs the revenue. Also, the Redhawks' next opponent is scheduled to be Mississippi on Sept. 12 and the SEMO coaching staff would like to have a game under its belt before it takes on a Southeastern Conference opponent.
Barke said he's been in conversations with multiple schools about a possible replacement game.
But even if he's able to fill the schedule hole, Barke — like every other athletic director, coach and school president — has no idea whether that game, or any other, will be played.
"We're having these conversations knowing in a sense there is a little contingency planning because we don't know that the game would even occur," Barke said.
Barke said one of the bigger questions he has is what will happen if a player or players in a specific position group test positive for the virus. He used the offensive line as an example. And he asked rhetorical questions:
If an offensive lineman tests positive, does the whole position group have to be quarantined because they were in close proximity in meetings and practice?
And if the offensive line was quarantined, would you have to quarantine the defensive line because they came in close contact with the offensive line in practice? What would that look like?
How about the skill players, coaches, staff, trainers — everybody — who also potentially came in contact with with the positive player?
"Pretty soon you wonder do you play if something like that happens," Barke said. "Could you play a game missing an entire position group?"
Barke also raised the specter of in-season disruptions, much like Missouri Valley Football Conference commissioner Patty Viverito did earlier in the week.
"You can assume you'd have a period of time when you'd have a completely healthy team," Barke said. "But you'd also have to assume you'd have a period of time when you wouldn't have a healthy team because of the virus. So then how do you deal with that?"
Barke painted a complicated picture of trying to keep student-athletes safe, while also trying to keep the student body and campus population safe, as well as the community at large. He also raised the possibility that some universities and towns that are low in positive coronavirus cases wouldn't want an outside football team with coaches and support staff traveling to their campus and possibly spreading the virus.
"How comfortable are people going to be with some of this?" Barke said.
It was just another question to which he, nor anybody else, has an answer right now.