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Should College Football be played without fans?

A mental exercise in how fanless football could look in 2020

Football - NCAA - Michigan State vs. Northwestern Photo by Chuck Rydlewski /Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

When the full extent of COVID-19 in the United States was made clear, especially around the time of the Big Ten Basketball Tournament, it seemed as if there was no easy way to predict what would happen next. Obviously spring sports were in for a ride - and they were quickly cancelled - but what about summer conditioning? What about classes? Was it actually possible that football could be cancelled in 2020?

These questions continue to swirl, and with the obvious caveat that none of this matters so long as this crisis ensues and people’s lives are in danger, it really is becoming clear that football in the fall is not only not a guarantee, but is also becoming much more of a potential to not happen. Even now, each and every AD seems to be coming to terms with what playing games without fans, in remote areas, or even just not playing would look like.

And since we here at OTE are nothing if not topical - please at least try to stifle your laughs - the team decided to take on an old-fashioned potluck-style collaboration to try and answer just what might happen next. We are still four plus months out from football, but it’s about to get really interesting.

1. Would you want to watch your favorite college team play football on TV if you knew there was no chance of having fans in a stadium? What would be the drawbacks for you as a fan, for the players, etc?

pkloa: Yes, 100%. Television-wise, I’d miss the audible reactions of the fans on the big plays. Imagine the bands being used to their utmost capability, though!

BrianB2: No fans at a Maryland Terrapins football game?!? How would we ever cope? Overall I would be fine with watching sports in fan-less stadiums, there would be an obvious adjustment period, but I think we as fans would just be happy to have something back. For the players, at least in the realm of collegiate football, it could be somewhat dissatisfying as I am sure certain players committed to certain programs to play in certain atmospheres that would now be lost (like all of those poor Maryland boys that wouldn’t get to play in front of tens of thousands of opposing fans in their own ballpark!)

BRT: Of course. I’m a fan of the team and the game, not the crowd. I’m sure the talking heads would still do their best to fill every available second with inane nattering, as they did even when things were normal.

LPW: yes, I’d definitely watch Northwestern home games without fans (BRING ON THE OBLIGATORY NORTHWESTERN JOKES). I miss watching sports and hope they can be played safely.

AK: If it can be done safely - if according to the epidemiologists and public health experts the few hundred people you’d need in the stadium to hold a game somehow doesn’t represent a significant threat of spreading the virus - then by all means go ahead. It’ll be strange without crowd noise but these are strange times we’re living in.

Candystripes: I almost exclusively watch IU games from home, so fans or no fans, I’ll watch it if it’s on TV. There are certain games (cough Ohio State cough) that IU might actually benefit from having no fans in the stadium, given that those games tend to have a much larger percentage of visiting fans than normal.

WSR: Yup. I like watching the Gophers, so I’d still want to watch them even if fans weren’t allowed into the games. I’d probably be a little bit bummed about not being able to see my friends before the game, but I’m sure we can find a way to develop some ways to cope and watch things together after surviving this pandemic.

Dead Read: If the choice is to watch football without fans in the stands, or not watch football at all...I will watch football. It would have my complete attention.

Brian: I’d watch, sure. I would certainly miss being part of the action, but an empty stadium wouldn’t keep me from watching on television. Now, if you’re asking if I think it’s feasible to play games in empty stadiums this fall, that’s a different question all together.

Jesse: I think my mind obviously goes to the players first, and while they are there to play football whether or not there are 100 or 100,000 people in attendance, it’s still sort of wild to imagine putting in the work with very little feedback or emotion. It definitely starts to beg the question of the value of one’s work, especially if you’re playing simply to fulfill TV contracts. That said, I would 100% be watching because I love the game, love my team, and if I’m in a situation where we’re still kind of sheltering in place, it would be a great distraction.

2. Do you think Athletic Directors have an argument to not play games if there is an option? Is it fair to players, fans, administrators, etc? What is the argument to not do it?

pkloa: The easy answer is safety. Football players are in extremely close proximity to one another by design. Add in the thousand times they’d have to wipe sweat from their T-Zones, and you have a recipe for one person infecting 100.

Cynical pkloa: SEC ADs will just do away with the Olympic sports for player safety.

BrianB2: I cannot imagine it is in any AD’s best interest to not play sports, so if they are making an argument to not play games, I would have to think it was for good reason. Obviously it sucks for players and fans alike, but I don’t think it falls into the category of “unfair”.

BRT: I’d agree safety is the issue. Most athletes are probably in a low-risk category, but when someone eventually gets complications, there could be liability. Then again, they injure their brains and schools aren’t generally held responsible, so that might not actually be much of a concern.

LPW: The only argument not to play football this fall is if Covid gets worse. I hope all the social distancing can flatten the curve and we can get back to our normal lives…..

AK: Alongside the obvious safety concern, there’s this suggestion, I think Notre Dame’s AD voiced it first, that if you can’t have the fans present, there’s no reason to have the games. That’s goofy as hell for the obvious reason, which is I can’t imagine schools and conferences are getting the budget-making TV money if the games don’t air and butts in the seats aren’t necessary for that to happen. But it’s also goofy for the less obvious reason, which is aside from the revenue sports, most NCAA competition happens in front of mostly empty venues. Ever been to a midweek Big Ten baseball game? Or a track meet? Sometimes you wouldn’t know there’s an organized competition going on. That’s not to say those events don’t draw crowds, just that we’ve never tried to say that sports have to draw a lot of people to be worth holding, so why would it be the case now, under once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) circumstances?

Candystripes: If the student body as a whole can’t be on campus, why would you bring the football team? Last I checked, sports don’t appear to be an “essential” service, so making a hundred or so students gather where thousands still can’t seems reckless.

WSR: I’m sure there are a few arguments for not having games, even if it were possible. We’re constantly reminded that they’re “student-athletes”, and it’d really be something if they were the somehow the only students that were allowed (read: forced) to be on campus while the rest of things were shut down.

Dead Read: A football team, and all of the people that surround it, is often portrayed as an insular community (Us versus the world!). But...viruses don’t read the sports pages, and a football team is just a sweaty petri dish.

I’ll pick some numbers out of the air to give you an idea. You have the players (let’s say 120 of them), you have the coaches (ten to fifteen when including GAs and “Analysts), you have the film guys (let’s say ten), you have the training staff (ten), athletic performance (weight room - ten), you have academic support, nutrition (training table), and also administrators. You also consider every person that each of the people listed above might interact with in a given day - profs, students, family, community, etc. It would be awfully damn hard to isolate them all from a virus. It would be damn near impossible to stop its spread once it gets a foothold.

I’ve heard of football programs who couldn’t get their athlete’s foot problem under control. Think of a program without a lot of resources trying to manage a life-threatening contagion. Don’t think Michigan, think McNeese State.

We might be waiting on football...for a while.

Brian: If you don’t have students on campus (which is a very real possibility), I can’t see justifying having athletes participating in sports, crowds or no crowds.

Jesse: In general, if ADs are acting in concert, I’m with many of my colleagues here, and it’s more about the larger NCAA body. Can schools with still endless coffers and boosters who demand football handle doing this the right way? Most likely. Can schools who barely make ends meet and have to take awful buy games do it? Nope. So sure, if that and safety are the concerns, I’m sold on not doing it. If it’s “well, we do this for the fans in the stadium,” well... come on.

3. If your team is told to find a smaller stadium or location to play home games this year, where would you want it to be?

pkloa: The lawn in front of Old Main.

BrianB2: Holy shit y’all, we could play games in the indoor monstrosity that once was Cole Field House...I would pay to watch that! If a punt or kick hits the ceiling it’s considered a ground rule double.

BRT: I don’t even know what else is available… Seacrest, I guess? Or come west to UNK! Or pay one of the small liberal arts colleges to use their field. That last one is actually my preference.

LPW: Ryan Field isn’t small enough? Hahaha. Play games at Hutcheson field (Northwestern’s lakefront outdoor football practice field) or in Ryan Fieldhouse. Football on Lake Michigan would be stunning. Bring on the fans in yachts! Another good option could be Deering meadow, provided it’s big enough.

AK: If we’re suddenly free of capacity concerns, wouldn’t it be kind of cool to hold games in high school stadia? I don’t have a specific one in mind for MSU or anywhere else, but as long as shitbirds like Harbaugh aren’t trying to schedule games at IMG Academy or something, it could be kind of a statement about returning to the roots of the game, without the multimillion dollar locker rooms or press boxes or luxury suites.

Candystripes: I believe the indoor practice facility is actually decently equipped to handle a lightly attended contest (it’s hosted the Spring Game when inclement weather forces it indoors before), so Mellencamp Pavilion it is.

WSR: I mean...Clemens Stadium at St. John’s. Pretty please?

Dead Read: Nebraska plays Iowa in the DakotaDome (lovely Vermillion, SD). Auction the tickets to raise money for covid relief.

Brian: How about the Stub Hub Center (I know, it’s changed names again) outside of Los Angeles. The Chargers couldn’t sell it out, maybe Michigan could. Plus, living in Southern California, it would save me the expense of a few flights a year.

Jesse: I’m imagining some wild quadrangle-of-hate games in tiny high school football stadiums all across the footprint. Why not have a game in North Platte, NE? How about in Hamburg, IA? I don’t have specifics, but the notion of needing/wanting a smaller venue is cool and I - for one - support these ideas.

4. So, bottom line, fans, no-fans, or don’t care?

pkloa: Unbolt ⅔ of the hardback seats to increase the distancing, sell 10% of stadium capacity and donate proceeds to CV charities.

BrianB2: The CDC and WHO have not yet advised me on how I should feel about this. I will get back to you.

BRT: Liberate football! Jk, I’m not a selfish idiot. This whole situation has changed so much and will continue to do so. If it can be played relatively safely without fans, that seems like a potentially good solution in an imperfect situation. But it’s impossible to know what things will look like in July or August, so I’m not dying on a hill for this now.

LPW: I’m preparing myself for a year without football, since there’s just so much uncertainty with regard to this pandemic and things getting better.

AK: It would be so like the NCAA to cut off their nose to spite their face by either postponing or cancelling the entire season out of some kind of amateurism-derived purity test, or base pursuit of gate receipts, or whatever it is. As I expressed in our slack chat about this, I wonder if some ADs aren’t kind of worried that once their most loyal, season ticket-holding patrons are compelled to move to the at-home experience, many of them won’t come back.

The basic question seems easy to me: if the options are don’t have the games at all until we can jam 100,000 people in the same place again or play games without fans, then play the games without fans, because it sounds as though it might not be advisable to do the former in time for NEXT season (fall 2021).

Candystripes: Safety first, literally anything else second. Sports if it’s safe to, no sports if it’s not, and the fans can figure themselves out later.

WSR: What Candy said. I want sports, with college football being at the top of the list, to come back and help provide a distraction and an opportunity to turn off my brain. But I’m perfectly content to kick back and re-watch old games from the 80s and 90s until it’s safe for everyone to get back together and play. Fans at games? We can burn that bridge when we get there.

Dead Read: If you can do it safely without fans, go ahead (you cannot do it safely). The same problem that prevents fans from attending (close proximity for extended periods of time) should prevent players from practicing and playing.

Brian: To me, the point is moot. Fans or no fans, if students aren’t on campus, I can’t imagine any football being played.