Imagine a fall Saturday in East Lansing: Leaves are turning orange and red and the banks of the Red Cedar River creep through tailgate spots and onto Spartan Stadium. It’s game day and it’s a beautiful day for football — only no one's tailgating, students aren’t making the hike to Spartan Stadium and the marching band isn’t making its way through the streets. The sounds of a football Saturday in East Lansing are silent now and Spartan Stadium is empty.
Fall in East Lansing is going to look very different in many ways. According to the nation’s leading infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, it is a “bridge too far” that there will be a vaccine in time to safely send students back to school. Universities in California are already declaring the semester will likely be online and considering Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s aggressive action in the past months, that could mean Michigan State could also be online come fall semester.
But what does that mean for sports? What does that mean for MSU football and coach Mel Tucker’s first year with his new team and coaching staff?
There is no easy answer for this, nor is there a sure-fire plan that will put players on the field. A guess of mine is as equal as anyone else's. However, experts and officials echoing the experts and the science have a better idea — if there is football in the fall, it will look very different.
In a Tuesday interview on Mojo in the Morning, Whitmer talked about the possibility of football starting its season on time with fans in the stands.
“There is reason to feel some confidence here,” Whitmer said. "But we also have to measure expectations and say life’s going to be different. We’re not going to be filling stadiums in the fall.”
Packed stadiums could be breeding grounds for COVID-19 and an easy way for the virus to spread. In an interview with NBC Sports’ Peter King, Fauci warned of the dangers of packing stadiums, especially as early as the fall.
“I think it’s feasible that negative testing players could play to an empty stadium. Is it guaranteed? No way," Fauci said. "I mean, that’s something that is again feasible depending on the level of infection. I keep getting back to that: It’s going to depend. Like, right now, if you fast forward, and it is now September. The season starts. I say you can’t have a season—it’s impossible. There’s too much infection out there. It doesn’t matter what you do. But I would hope that by the time you get to September it’s not gonna be the way it is right now."
So football isn’t out of the question, even with fans present. But there is a lot – and I mean a lot – of progress that has to happen with the virus and precautions that will have to be taken every day for that to happen. It really is up to the virus to decide.
If the rate of infection significantly decreases from where we are now, Fauci said, maybe there is a shot. But even then, football won't be the same.
According to interviews from Fauci and Whitmer, if football is back in the fall, it will be likely that players will have to be tested daily and Spartan Stadium will likely never be at capacity. Travel will be even more difficult — on Thursday, MSU suspended all university-sponsored travel indefinitely.
The hoops that the NCAA will have to jump through to have football in the fall are greater than those of professional teams. Schools are already closing for the fall, so schedules will have to be altered and who’s to say what happens when a player inevitably tests positive.
While once the biggest concern was to save lives in the present, Whitmer has repeated over and over that the steps being taken are aimed at preventing a second wave.
"Certainly, as governor, I want to give people the confidence that our plan will be met on days certain," Whitmer said. "But the fact of the matter is, COVID-19 is a novel virus and that means it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen before. We’re learning a tremendous amount. Every week that goes by, we’ve learned so much more about this disease and what it’s going to take to keep us safe and to avoid that second wave."
Whitmer has reopened the economy in steps — slow steps that are deemed safe in the eyes of experts and science. While we could still see a version of football in the fall, it will all come down to this: Would it increase the chances of a second wave?
If the answer is yes, football is out the door.
This unprecedented time is hard, especially for sports fans. Sports are supposed to be there to be enjoyed, foster shared memories and to help people to cope. It's powerful and has shown us time and time again how it's really more than "just sports." When crises happen, people can rally around sports, but right now we can’t, and that’s tough. There is really no other way to put it.
There might not be football in the fall, and if there is, it won’t be the same — but that can’t be our priority right now. Health and safety are more important than anything else during a time like this and sports or no sports, we need to rally together to get through this.
When students were first sent home and spring football was frozen back in March, Tucker emphasized health and safety.
“When the time is right, we are going to hit the ground running,” he said.
Exactly, when the time is right.