As the start of college football season continues to inch closer, NCAA president Mark Emmert said Tuesday he remains "very concerned" about the status of fall sports and thinks a delayed start and shortened schedule might "make sense."
"We do get to see what happens when people return to campus," he told ESPN during an interview that focused on the continued impact of the coronavirus pandemic on college sports. "You get to learn a lot from what's going on with professional sports. We get to see how the testing protocols emerge and how that can be more effective, especially if we can get antigen testing going, for keeping track of the virus on campuses. The fact a delay could provide us with time to do all that could be very, very useful.
"Also, the move to a smaller number of games can be really helpful because you've got bigger breaks between games then, and you could provide flexibility around schedules," he said. " ... If you have to quarantine a team or a big chunk of a team, you've got time to do that and you've got time to adjust. ... I think having fewer contests and doing them over a delayed period of time could be very, very helpful."
Emmert's comments come during a pivotal week in which the 15 ACC presidents and chancellors are expected to make a decision on the league's scheduling model -- a move on Wednesday that could have a significant impact on the SEC, Big 12 and Notre Dame. Officials from the Big 12 and SEC have expressed a desire to continue with a 12-game schedule if possible, while Notre Dame's contractual agreement with the ACC opens up even more options for expanding that partnership this fall.
There's also the lingering worst-case scenario of no season at all. In order to feel it's safe for fall sports to continue, Emmert said, "We need to clearly see the indicators of viral spread be moving in a much better direction than they are right now."
"We continue to see in various areas spikes both in terms of viral spread, in terms of the percent of tests that are coming back positive, and hospitalizations and tragically even deaths," he said. "In those areas where we know we have a lot of competition, a lot of sports going on, we need to see movement in the right direction and right now, it's starting to plateau in some areas, but it's not headed in the right direction."
The NCAA's role throughout the pandemic has mainly been that of advisor, issuing medical guidelines and protocols, while adjusting rules and granting waivers to provide conferences with more flexibility than usual. It quickly and quietly shouldered more significance recently, though, when the NCAA's board of governors began to seriously consider the possibility of canceling fall championships.
The group, which comprises mainly university presidents representing all three divisions, has the authority to cancel or postpone 22 NCAA fall championships for sports like soccer, women's volleyball, and FCS football. The regular-season games and schedules, though, are at the discretion of the individual schools or their conferences.
While the board decided not to make a decision last Friday, Emmert said it's possible they will at their next meeting on Aug. 4. Emmert said he's still hopeful the November championships are played, but if they are canceled, he said it doesn't mean that the regular seasons couldn't still happen.
"They could play for a conference championship if they could make it safe," he said. "The determination of our championships would be about whether or not we could bring together large groups of students in these kinds of environments and do it safely. That's the decision point.
"An individual contest -- a football game, a basketball game -- that's quite different," he said. "In the case of a bowl game or the CFP, you're talking about a championship game. Can you create a bubble with enough lead time to have two teams play each other safely? The answer to that may be yes. The FCS is a round-robin championship with 20 teams participating and a full-on championship event. That's a very different and much more challenging environment than adding one or two more games to a season with a lot of space in between."
Normally, the NCAA fall championships include play-in rounds that occur on campuses, but the NCAA decided recently to use predetermined sites this year to control the environment and create something like a "bubble" at those sites.
"If we're going to do that, which is what we have to do, we have to get going on the logistics of that way ahead of time," Emmert said. "Right now we haven't identified those sites. We have to identify them, choose the facilities, places to stay, and that needs to begin fairly soon. We've got a matter of weeks, but not beyond that, within which we can make those determinations."
Emmert also said he recognizes that as students return to campus, they want to know if they're going to have a championship to play for. "Making the decision to shut down March Madness and the Frozen Four and the spring championships was awful," he said. " ... You turn around and talk to coaches and kids and hear what that meant for them to have a season ripped away from them, that's an awful thing to have to do. The first and most important implications are what it means for the students."
Part of the reason the NCAA is concerned about limiting the travel during its fall championships is because of what it has seen recently from Major League Baseball, where a rash of coronavirus infections within the Miami Marlins has caused concern throughout all of sports.
"I certainly wasn't surprised," Emmert said. "It seems to me that moving teams around the country is going to be challenging. I would be shocked if as we get into fall sports in college sports that we don't have this occur. ... It's not whether someone comes down with the virus, it's what you do when it happens in my opinion."
In spite of the comparison, Emmert said there are vast differences between professional and college sports.
"I've talked to dozens of students," he said. "They want to go to campus, they want to play, they want this to return to something like normal. We all want everything to be normal on campus, but the fact is nothing is going to be normal on campus -- any campus. That creates all kinds of challenges and problems for college sports. It's easy to think about college sports as some kind of analog to professional sports, but professional sports leagues have 30 or so teams. We have 19,000 teams across the NCAA over all three seasons, and in the fall we'll run 22 championships. The idea of making that all fit into anything that looks like normal is a challenge to say the least."
It's because of the NCAA's vast scope, he said, that having a "czar of college football" is "utterly unrealistic."
"Would it be great to have the czar of football stand up and say, 'We're going to play!' or 'We're not going to play!' -- of course that's great," he said, "but that's just unrealistic and it surely doesn't fit college sports. These are college students, and they're at 1,100 different colleges. This isn't the NBA bubble. There's no bubble in college sports. That's just not how we can or should operate. "
"For the fans and others who say, 'Well, run it like the NBA,'" he said, "That's a very nice thought, but it's utterly unrealistic and inappropriate for college athletes."