The college football season that begins with a handful of games Saturday will look very little like the one that took place last year, when coaches, players and administrators struggled just to get on the field each weekend.
In many ways, it will look a lot more like normal.
Teams are looking forward to complete schedules, including nonconference games kicked to the curb last year but that generate much-needed money for athletic departments. Most schools are looking forward to full stadiums, even if some will require fans to be vaccinated or show proof of a recent test to step through the turnstiles. Networks are looking forward to regular programming, rather than constant shuffling caused by dozens of postponements each week.
“The COVID situation, it really has been our main opponent since last March, when things started getting shut down,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Things have been a lot better this year, but I’m about nine days out from watching news — thank God — and so I know there’s a lot going on in the country and nobody can predict where it’s all going. ”
DO PLAYERS NEED TO BE VACCINATED?
The answer lies somewhere in the gray area between yes and no. There is no single set of rules that govern vaccine requirements in college football.
Some schools, such as Hawaii, are requiring all athletes be vaccinated before they can take part in fall sports and many schools are also requiring that of all students. In states such as Texas vaccination cannot be required because of gubernatorial or legislative decree. Rules can also differ between public and private schools.
Even where players are not required to be vaccinated, though, schools are bombarding them with education and incentives to entice them to get their shots. They also face a far busier schedule of testing. The result? Places such as Ole Miss are touting 100% vaccination rates.
WHAT ABOUT THE FANS?
The vast majority of schools will kick off their seasons with fans able to attend without proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, even if masks are required in certain areas. Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour explained it this way: “Our campus leadership and our board really felt like the position we’ve taken is one that balances to the highest degree health and safety as well as personal choices and individual liberties.”
Oregon State and Oregon were the first Division I schools to announce that fans over the age of 12 attending home games this season will need to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of kickoff.
LSU announced a similar policy for fans attending Tiger Stadium for its opener against McNeese State on Sept. 11. While no test is required for those 12 and under, they must wear a mask if they are 5 and older, and masks are encouraged for all fans in a state where the CDC reports vaccination levels are hovering just over 50%.
ISN'T THIS ALL POLITICAL?
There is no question politics have shaped the pandemic response since the very start, and that includes the way colleges and universities have adapted to outbreaks. More liberal states tend to be more aggressive in requiring vaccines and masks, while their conservative counterparts tend to vigorously defend the personal right to make health decisions.
That's why the NCAA has declined to offer a standardized set of guidelines for dealing with COVID-19 this season. Instead, the governing body has supplied a set of recommendations for both the vaccinated and unvaccinated.
Isn't not just political, though. The mitigation strategies schools employ also are shaped by medical officers, researchers and those on the front lines of the pandemic. More is known about slowing the virus now than a year ago.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
The emergence of the highly-transmissible delta variant, and the potential for other variants down the road, have officials understandably on edge. But many are hopeful that the FDA's full approval of the Pfizer vaccine will lead to higher vaccination rates across the board, and recent studies of booster shots have shown encouraging results.
That makes administrators and coaches optimistic they can make it through an entire season without major outbreaks.
“I think many of us are much more educated on the virus, and our behavior matters, vaccinated or unvaccinated,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “The structures that we’ll have as a university, as an athletic department, as a football program, need to be in such a way that help people stay safe. But there’s going to be an individual responsibility as well. ... COVID hasn’t gone away. It’s still about making great decisions, vaccinated or unvaccinated.”