FARGO — An unfortunate story out of Springfield, Mo., home to Missouri State University of the Missouri Valley Football Conference, pounded home the point few in the Football Championship Subdivision want to acknowledge: This fall has a chance to look like the spring.
That is to say, a (ahem) crap show.
Perhaps less of a (ahem) crap show than the spring, with its canceled and rescheduled games, but a (ahem) crap show nonetheless.
And it's 100% avoidable.
Springfield is home to a COVID outbreak, according to news reports, to the point one of its hospitals is out of ventilators. The Delta variant of the virus, combined with Missouri's low vaccination rates, has made the southwest Missouri city of 170,000 a hot spot.
It's a reminder that as much as we want to believe the pandemic is behind us, it's not. Schools can announce attendance and tailgating will return to 100% capacity this fall — America is back, baby! — but it doesn't mean COVID has disappeared.
Especially not from the largely rural, largely conservative regions where vaccination rates are lagging. You know, the exact footprint of the MVFC. Like Missouri. The Dakotas. Iowa. Downstate Illinois. Indiana.
And if COVID is still with us, protocols will still be with us, which means testing and contact tracing will still be with us. That means positive tests, and the consequences that come with them, will still be with us.
Maybe you've heard about the North Carolina State baseball players who tested positive for COVID and were booted from the NCAA tournament, leading to the Wolfpack forfeiting a game? A variance of that situation could replicate itself during the college football season.
Unvaccinated players get tested, some come up positive, contract-tracing ensues, team runs short of players, team forfeits game.
The way to avoid such misfortune is simple.
No, it's not whining that the NCAA or Centers for Disease Control are liberal communist scum.
No, it's not to say COVID is a hoax.
No, it's not to say young people aren't affected by the virus so the rules are stupid.
It's to get teams vaccinated at a rate that will allow them to avoid contracting the virus and — perhaps just as important for the purposes discussed here — avoid being tested during the season.
As of this week, this might be more fantasy than a Pioneer League team winning an FCS national championship.
MVFC commission Patty Viverito said Tuesday, July 6, that as of three weeks ago, vaccination rates among league teams ranged from 25% to 70%.
She knows of at least one FCS league that's even worse.
It's likely teams will have to reach 85% vaccination rates to avoid being tested.
"That's what we see as the 'get out of jail free card,'" Viverito said. "That's our hope."
Viverito based her statements on a recent MVFC Presidents Council meeting at which COVID protocols were discussed. It was reported that NCAA chief medical officer Dr. Brian Hainline has speculated that by the fall, teams that are 85% vaccinated could be relieved from all asymptomatic testing. Including unvaccinated team members.
The challenge is closing the gap. When not a single state in the MVFC footprint has vaccination rates exceeding 50%, how can universities and coaches convince young people (invincible, get their misinformation about the vaccines from social media) to get jabbed at an 85% clip?
The conference will not mandate vaccinations. It's just too political. It also dismissed the idea of incentivizing athletes with giveaways, like some state governments have tried, as ineffective.
Instead, according to the minutes of the presidents meeting, athletic directors and presidents "agreed the greatest incentives for student-athletes to be vaccinated include possible impact on playing time and avoidance of the inconvenience and/or cost of COVID-19 testing, and avoidance of quarantine as a result of contact tracing."
In other words, play on their self-interest. Do you want to play or not? Do you want to miss a game? Do you want to be quarantined for two weeks? Do you want to let down your teammates? Do you want to screw up your team's season?
Nothing is finalized, but the league will have to decide how to proceed if a team has numerous positive tests or decides it can't play a game because one position group was severely affected. Indiana State plays Aug. 28, so the MVFC will have to decide by then.
Viverito said it's unlikely the conference will postpone or reschedule COVID-affected games. It's more likely games will be cancelled and declared either a forfeit or no-contest. The league will have to set thresholds on how to proceed if a team has numerous positive tests.
Of course, all of this is 100% avoidable.
If enough athletes get vaccinated, this fall can be all about football.
But since it looks like the 85% vaccination rate is unattainable for many teams, the (ahem) crap show storyline seems a likely possibility.