By Michael Kinney
Since mid-March the sports world has been in a standstill. Whether it is professional leagues, the college ranks or even youth athletics, the overwhelming majority of athletes have been in a wait and see mode as the country deals with the COVID-19.
That includes the University of Oklahoma football team. The Sooners missed out on spring football and workouts due to the limitations and guidelines put in place by state officials to stop the spread of COVID-19.
However, OU coach Lincoln Riley doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to get his players back on campus. During a virtual conference call Thursday with reporters, he expressed his worries that things may be moving too fast.
“All the talk about these schools wanting to bring players back on June 1 is one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever heard,” Riley said. “We’ve got to be patient. We have one good shot at it. “It would be completely irresponsible to bring these guys in too early. We need to bring these guys in as late as we can. Every day they come in could be a day we could’ve gotten better, learned more about the virus, the PPE gets better, a day closer to a vaccine, the testing capabilities get better. It’s just not worth it.”
This differs completely with remarks Oklahoma State University football coach Mike Gundy made in April about getting players back on campus as soon as possible.
“The NCAA, the presidents of the universities, the conference commissioners, the athletic directors all need to be meeting right now, and we need to start coming up with answers,” Gundy said. “In my opinion, if we have to bring our players back, test them. They’re in good shape, they’re all 18, 19, 20, 21, 22 years old, they’re healthy. A lot of them can fight it off with their natural body, the antibodies and build that they have. There are some people that are asymptomatic. If that’s true, then yeah, we sequester them. And people say, ‘That’s crazy.’ No, it’s not crazy, because we need to continue to budget and run money through the state of Oklahoma.”
Gundy has since apologized for the controversy his statement caused. But he did not back down from his opinion.
Riley’s apprehensions stem from the recent conversations revolving around professional sports moving toward making a comeback in the near future. The NBA, the NFL, MLB and NHL all seem to be making progress to resuming their seasons.
College athletics are hoping to join right behind them.
The commissioners of the Power 5 conferences (Big 12, ACC, SEC, Big 10, Pac 12) had a conference call with Roger Goodell to hear his thoughts on how they can get the college football season up and running.
“They’re ahead of us in terms of developing protocols as to how they can bring players back, and how they would test, and if they are playing before when a full stadium of fans were allowed, how many fans would be allowed in the stadium,” ACC commissioner John Swofford told the media Thursday. “They have to deal with different state regulations just like we may have to deal with that, but from a medical standpoint, I think we can certainly learn from them as they move into their training camps and playing games because their cycle is ahead of ours.”
Yet, Riley doesn’t seem to believe the college level can take the same path as pro leagues. Especially since universities have more than just billionaire owners to listen to.
This was shown last week when the California State University System, the largest four-year public university in the country, announced that it plans to offer primarily online remote classes this fall. That includes 23 campuses across the state.
This has many wondering the rest of the school on the West coast will soon follow and if that also means no fall sports.
Riley doesn’t believe that is going to happen in Oklahoma. But, he also isn’t sure.
“I definitely think we’ll play. “When we play? I just think everybody, whether it’s our decision-makers, our coaches, our players, fans, I think everybody’s gotta have a very open mind about this,” Riley said. “We’re not the NFL. There are some huge, huge differences in us being able to put on a successful season versus a professional league. We’re not the NBA. We don’t just have 15 players. This is a totally different deal.”
However, like with most issues, the decision to come back has a lot to do with money.
Several of the elite football programs, such as the Sooners, could survive having to sit out one season if they had to. But the revenue those programs take in also funds most of the other sports on campus.
If there is no football, many believe some non-revenue (Olympic) sports will be cut.
While the SEC is set to vote May 22 on making their athletic facilities available for student-athletes as soon as June 1, the Big 12 has yet to put forth a timetable. However, Riley does believe there will be some type of season.
“I do believe if we do it right and we don’t get ahead of ourselves, we will be able to play a season. Whether that’s this fall, whether that’s in the spring, whether it’s a combination, whether that’s a full schedule, shortened schedule, I don’t know,” Riley said. “I know all those options are on the table, and we’re gonna have to have an open mind and we’re probably gonna have to make some adjustments along the way. But I have a high, high confidence that we are gonna play football this year.”