Missouri's plan to reopen campus for fall gives hope college football can return

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(Paul Nisely/SN Illustration)

In my corner of the world, our corner of the world, the discussion is framed in only one way: Will we have real, live college football in the autumn of 2020? Not replays of classics contested in years gone by, but games between two opposing teams of young men wearing colorful uniforms and their school’s logo on the helmet.

It is an important consideration, because a lot of college athletics depends on the funding generated by this one, most popular sport.

The question is far too narrow, however. The much more consequential consideration is whether college students around the country will be able to return to campus life: staying in dorms, absorbing lectures (or, on a bad day, sleeping) in classrooms and grabbing a pizza at the best joint in town. If these activities cannot resume because of the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, universities across the country will have far greater concerns than whether they’ll be able to continue funding the golf team.

MORE: Will COVID-19 affect college football?

And the communities around these colleges will face significant economic hardship over and above what they might be feeling now.

And so it was worth noting Wednesday when University of Missouri interim chancellor Mun Y. Choi announced in a letter to the Mizzou community the school’s plans to “bring our beautiful campus to life once it is possible.”

Choi said Missouri anticipates returning to “in-person operations and classes this fall.” The university will not just throw open the gates and go back to habits and practices in place through 2019; social distancing practices that will affect how classes, meetings and research are conducted are being developed. The campus is being thoroughly cleaned while closed.

“Of course, the situation demands continued flexibility based on the evolving public health situation and in the best interests of students, faculty and staff, but we are looking forward to the fall semester,” Choi wrote.

This does not assure intercollegiate athletics will return in the autumn. No one can be certain what course the coronavirus will follow in the months to come. Mizzou did become the first major NCAA Division I university, though, to declare an intent to return to campus life in the fall. This is an essential step toward the possibility of college football being played in the fall, whether on schedule or delayed by a bit.

There will be no athletics if campuses are not open. A Power 5 athletic director told Sporting News exactly this in a recent text exchange.

MORE: Cincy's reason to drop men's soccer more a product of conference revenue than COVID-19

If campuses are open, though, it may be difficult to justify not competing, regardless of it’s in an empty stadium. You can have a few dozen or a few hundred in a classroom but not 22 on a football field? That seems somewhat illogical. Lots of college sports are played with minimal attendance, merely because spectators don’t have great interest. It might not be so revolutionary to limit or eliminate the audience at football games for the sake of public safety.

We may not know the immediate future of college football until midsummer. One person who works with university admissions told SN many universities will not make a final decision about reopening campus until July. Which is all the better. Make the decision on the latest information and experience, rather than rushing into something regrettable — one way or the other.

There has been much conjecturing about what might occur in intercollegiate sports, including an awkward declaration from the University of Connecticut president Tuesday that brought headlines he later sought to deescalate.

One thing is certain, though: In so many ways, the issue of resuming college is more important than resuming college football. No matter which we care about more, it’s best to understand which comes first.

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