Sinking In

Apr 21, 2020

I was on the Josh Whitman Zoom call today - a call held with the media. I guess I should say "yesterday" since I won't post this until tomorrow, which will be today for you. I was on the Josh Whitman Zoom call yesterday - a call held with the media.

I know that I probably should write a "Josh Whitman said the following things on the call" article, but there were 12 other people on the call, and I'm assuming they wrote that, and I'm assuming you read that. Instead, like most things, I feel like writing my reaction to the call. I was on the Josh Whitman Zoom call yesterday, and here's what I came away thinking afterwards.

Now, I did ask a few questions. Mostly about spring sports and seniors getting to return. The NCAA has said that spring 2020 seniors can return in spring of 2021 (since they didn't get a senior season), but some schools, like Wisconsin, have said that they're not going to allow that. You've had your four years - move along. I asked if it might come to that at Illinois as well, meaning that seniors who had already announced their 2021 return (like golfers Michael Feagles and Giovanni Tadiotto) might be out of luck. He said that they have had discussion with all seniors eligible to return and (I hope I'm getting this number correct because I didn't start recording the call until after my questions were asked) "around 15" had planned to return and that the University had already agreed to cover those scholarships.

I also asked about the possiibility of a spring college football season (it was discussed by ESPN's Chris Fowler in this Instagram video as something that's a very real possibility), and how that might affect everything (other spring sports, the budget, etc). He couldn't really give an answer other than to say that everything is on the table right now.

I really should have recorded that part.

He also discussed how they were getting "close" on a hockey program and arena, with a possible announcement "next month". This is where I give you my reaction, not quotes, so I could have been reading it wrong, but my feeling when he was talking about that was that they were "very close" on the downtown arena, not specifically "very close" to announcing a new Division I hockey program at Illinois. This is an arena that would likely replace Huff Hall as the place where volleyball matches and wrestling meets would take place, so I think it's possible they might have been moving towards announcing that arena construction would soon begin with the hope that hockey programs would be finalized soon after that.

Again, just my read on that. There have been so many "hockey is imminent" rumors over the past four years that I guess I've started to tune them out. Once an arena is a sure thing, perhaps the hockey program moves from "the red zone" (as Whitman said last year) to the goal line. But now, with coronavirus, all of that is on hold.

I'm halfway through this post and I haven't even discussed the whole reason I put the title "sinking in" at the top. Let's get to that.

Whitman couldn't really answer many questions. And I get it - nobody knows. He doesn't have a crystal ball, so he doesn't know when students will return, let alone athletics. But as he discussed every side of this thing, it really began to sink in: because of the "students returning to campus" thing, it's so very difficult for college athletics to return.

I knew that - the first thing I wrote about Coronavirus was this post four weeks ago today where I said that I felt like the next Illini athletic event I'd cover would be the Nebraska football game in Ireland in 2021 - but on this call, it really began to sink in. Because college athletics cannot return until all students are allowed back on campus, it's really difficult to see college athletics returning until there's an approved treatment or vaccine.

There's the "how do you play a contact sport?" side of things - a UConn player travels to Champaign, contracts COVID-19 on an extra point because an Illinois lineman who is asymptomatic unknowingly transmits the virus to him and then he travels back to Storrs and spreads it to his three roommates - but there's also the "how do you make a college campus happen again?" part of this. If the next phase of this whole thing (after "shelter in place") is contact tracing of known cases, then "48,000 people travel to Champaign-Urbana all at once from all 50 states plus 49 foreign countries" seems like an impossibility. Maybe I'm just not understanding what the next phase of all of this is going to look like, but it seems about 50 times easier for major league baseball to put 150 players and support staff through rigorous testing and sequestering in order to play a three-game series than it is for 48,000 people to return to Champaign-Urbana (plus every other Division I college town).

Whitman mentioned how there are several international student athletes on campus right now (they were unable to travel home once the campus was closed). Just thinking through everything that has to be done to protect those students on campus right now to give them room and board, and then extrapolating that out across an entire campus if the students return, brings me right back to "colleges really can't do anything until there's a treatment or vaccine".

After viewing it that way, every Whitman answer ran straight into the "but how?" wall in my brain. Only the question about recruiting visits seemed plausible up against my "but how?" brain. A recruiting visit could be done just with social distancing and masks. Everything else...

Take golf. I think the PGA Tour will return on June 11th as they've announced. It's a lot of testing and sequestering, but I think it can be done, even with golfers traveling internationally. College golf could be done as well, but... college golf would require all 48,000 students returning to campus from 50 states and 49 countries, so I can't see how college golf is possible, even though the sport might be the "easiest" to put back on the schedule.

I often think about the Big Ten Tournament and how, with testing, it could have been held without fans. There was no way to do it at the time with the players not being tested or quarantined, but if you were to propose it now, if the players were tested, you could still hold it without fans. Media could attend under social distancing guidelines (heck, give each media member their own section in the arena). Don't do face-to-face interviews. Make sure the camera operators all have their own space. Sit the announcers more than six feet apart. Sports without fans can eventually be done.

But sports which require 48,000 students to return to the Illinois campus first (and 50,000 at Michigan State and 66,000 at Ohio State)? That's really hard to see unless there's a treatment or vaccine. The best guess for a vaccine (from what I've read) is mid-to-late 2021 because of the timeline necessary for trails, production, and distribution to 330 million people. So really, I think it boils down to an approved treatment.

Once more - I'm not a doctor, I don't play one on TV, and this is all just speculation. But when I closed my computer after Whitman's Zoom call yesterday, my main feeling was "man, there's no way there's college football this fall or college basketball this winter". Professional sports, maybe, but how do you bring students back to campus?

Whitman talked about how they closed the Smith Center and all other campus athletic buildings - how do you open any of that back up? It seems to me like all of that hinges on an approved treatment bringing the COVID-19 deaths down to seasonal flu-like levels. If that's the case, no hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed, and if the virus is transmitted to a UConn player, that player gets the approved treatment and is at a very low risk for severe symptoms or death (or, perhaps more accurately, when he gives it to his grandmother, she's at a much lower risk because of this approved treatment). At that point, everything is open again.

Perhaps I'm missing a lot here. I still don't understand "herd immunity" (wouldn't that only apply had we let the virus run rampant?), so maybe that comes into play. As I said a month ago, I probably shouldn't even speculate. But I just can't get past one thing: getting 48,000 students back on campus is the stumbling block. Whitman moved so many of his answers in that direction, and with good reason. Until the safety of students (and their families) can be guaranteed, the other questions don't really matter.

Once the campus questions are answered, the specifics of "how" can be discussed. Until that time, we won't see any college sports.

I don't want it to, but that's really starting to sink in.


jdl on April 21 @ 12:08 PM CDT

I've been thinking similar thoughts recently. And it's not just getting things to where Illinois has students back on campus or even the entire Big Ten, but all across the country, right? Maybe Iowa could be ready this fall, but Michigan? New Jersey? Seems very doubtful. And could the Big Ten (or more realistically the B12? SEC?) decide to have their own season without the rest of the conferences? Doesn't seem like the NCAA would let that happen. So you really need all 50 states.

Maybe the "best case" is now being able to do that for the spring semester but that brings even more questions on top of the ones we already have.

1970 John on April 21 @ 12:18 PM CDT

Venn diagram of the COVID-19 connumdrum.

And there's the problem. Extend it to the Div II and Div III schools. And then extend it to everything from your barber to, heck, even your doctor. And figure in the economic impact of that, from everything from "non-essential" employees, or companies operating at skeleton staff, to the stock market which, yes, affects you, particularly if you have a retirement plan.

I keep hoping that some miracle occurs, but yeah, "but how?

ClassOfDeeDeronJames on April 21 @ 12:51 PM CDT

Your concerns are all valid. This is going to drag out longer than anyone wants to believe.

Unfortunately I think colleges in general may be affected in part permanently from this. Consider, every professor on campus is likely prepping for the fall 2020 semester to be online. Once you have an online curriculum for nearly every course, why do you need to house tens of thousands of students on campus? Devils advocate, why would I pay for my child to attend in-person when every course is available online?

Of course attending college in person and maturing into an adult on your own is important, but once the college curriculum is digitally documented, it opens up a ton of new scenarios for the future of every university, from limited to radical. Who knows where we go from here?

IlliniOllie on April 21 @ 01:39 PM CDT

Related, but if the fall 2020 semester is online, I can see a lot of students opting to take the semester off entirely, to work and/or take classes locally. Why pay for a semester of Big Ten tuition for only a fraction of the experience?

Even aside from the social aspects of on-campus life, the academic experience online can’t come close to in-person. Any lab-based class is going to be almost a complete loss online.

I wonder how many of those 48,000 will take Fall 2020 off if campus isn’t reopened.

BexleyIllini on April 22 @ 09:51 AM CDT

Millions of students across the country will take a "gap year" if there is no on-campus education. I can't imagine what will happen in the fall of 2021 if this occurs.

MinnIllini on April 21 @ 01:00 PM CDT

As it turns out we may have picked the best time possible to be unable to get any football commits.

IlliNYC on April 22 @ 08:56 PM CDT

There's a way to do it. It involves aggressive testing, cleaning, masks, quarantining--colleges stayed open during the Spanish Flu (and that was a disease that did hit young people hard)--but it's bleak and I'm doubtful.

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