Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith knows the resumption of college sporting events in venues without fans is an option amid the coronavirus pandemic, but he doesn't see how it would ensure the safety of those on the field or the court.
Smith said Friday that he needs more information from experts on how holding sporting events in empty stadiums or arenas would ensure the health of student-athletes. The NCAA canceled all spring events because of the outbreak, and no decisions have been made on fall sports, which include football.
"I struggle with that concept," Smith said on a conference call with reporters. "When I first heard that, I said, 'OK, that could work.' But I figured if we don't have fans in the stands, we've determined it's not safe for them in a gathering environment. So why would it be safe for the players?"
Smith and other Big Ten athletic directors have had daily conference calls with commissioner Kevin Warren. They have discussed return-to-play protocols but not the potential models for the 2020 football season, which include a later start date and a shortened schedule, playing in empty stadiums, or not starting the season until sometime in 2021.
Smith said having football games without crowds would cause a "major impact" for Ohio State and the economy in central Ohio, but he noted that any decisions about large gatherings would be made by medical experts and government officials. He repeatedly praised Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine for making "some tough early decisions" to impose social distancing restrictions in the state, noting it could result in Ohio State students returning to campus sooner.
Ohio State announced last week that all of its summer classes would move online, and Smith said most Buckeyes football players left campus to go home.
"You have 100 football players; it's hard to social distance in the locker room or training room," Smith said. "We have to get to a place where it's OK for those group dynamics to occur. I have to rely on the experts on that, because we cannot put our kids at risk."
Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin echoed similar concerns on The Paul Finebaum Show on ESPN Radio on Friday.
"Either we've made it through this and it's safe for people to be around or it's not," Kiffin said. "Obviously we shouldn't do anything until it's completely safe.
"... I don't know how all of sudden you're gonna say you can start playing football games with no fans and that's safe, but it's not safe for fans. So I think that's a waste of time."
The NCAA on Friday announced that it has established an internal COVID-19 playing and practice seasons working group, which will focus on football and communicate with the football oversight committees for Division I, Division II and Division III.
"The foundation of return to practice and competition is public health," the NCAA said in a statement. "Assuming safety principles are in place, there are many 'what if' scenarios that this group will assess, including possible modifications of conditioning and training in the summer and preseason. Given currently available data and infrastructure for disease management for COVID-19, it is premature to establish a timeline for when these scenarios may be put in place."
Smith said any decisions about when football teams reassemble and the 2020 season must be made nationally with all the FBS conferences. Although he acknowledged that key decisions and directives are necessary at some point, he advocates patience.
"We're not going to rush this," Smith said. "We've got a major societal issue. Football's important, I know that, but at the end of the day, we've got people dying."