Four months ago, at the start of the COVID-19 shut down, Duke coach David Cutcliffe cautioned his brethren to think about uniformity. He was concerned about schools and coaches seeking a competitive edge.
“That’s when people start trying to take care of themselves,” said Cutcliffe on April 10. “They take off their college football hat and put on their university hat. I have tried to my best to put on my AFCA (American Football Coaches Association) hat as I listen to people. We’ve got people in New York, Louisiana … people in hot spots and people in new hot spots. It’s important this isn’t done conference to conference. There has to be uniformity.”
Well, so much for wishful thinking.
Clemson, North Carolina, Florida State, Alabama, LSU, Mississippi, Texas, Kansas State and Ohio State were among the schools to return to campus in June with “voluntary” workouts. Those are the same campuses reporting outbreaks of COVID-19 infections among their athletes and having to shut down practice.
Figuratively, picture all those schools as the 20-somethings partying shoulder to shoulder beginning with the Lake of the Ozarks gathering over Memorial Day weekend through Diamond Lake party over the Fourth of July.
Predictably, COVID-19 infections began spiking two weeks after Memorial Day and have been on the rise, threatening the return of students to campus – not to mention the 2020 football season.
“Our (AFCA) board meetings have been good,” Cutcliffe said. “We have a unique set of people. I’ve known executive director Todd Berry for a long time. Where you run into problems is when you break from the board meeting and report back to the conference, some of it has fallen on deaf ears. That’s why it’s been difficult; there’s not one voice to represent all of it. Everybody has a different vantage point.”
Cutcliffe said he was optimistic about football season until COVID-19 has spiked despite summer heat and large portions of the public have ignored social distancing and mask recommendations.
He is now less optimistic about starting the season on time or playing a 12-game schedule. He only views spring football as a final option, adding there is no guarantee a vaccine will end the pandemic by the spring.
Cutcliffe likes the Big Ten’s announcement to only play conference games with each school following the same rules and protocols. Otherwise, playing a non-conference opponent operating under less supervision could infect its opponents and the players can subsequently expose many others.
“I was hoping we could unify a return to campus, unify a return to practice and unify a return to play,” he said.
Cutcliffe and his players were originally concerned Duke’s campus was closed throughout June while some schools allowed athletes back on campus, but as events played out, they have greater appreciation for following protocols than it would have had in June.
The Blue Devils’ football players return to campus on Sunday. Other fall sports return later in the summer. All of the athletes will be tested upon arriving on campus and advised of safety routines.
“Coach Cut and staff had a meeting with all of our parents on Zoom,” said senior offensive lineman Rakavious Chambers. “They talked about all the protocols we’ll be going through coming back. I think that lasted hour and half. That’s a long time. I really appreciated that and I know my mom did as well. They’ve been completely open about what’s going on, how many tests we’ll receive and what they’ll be doing to maintain safety. That that transparency has been been good to easy parents’ fears.”
Duke redshirt defensive end Chris Rumph III said the players understand the potential detrimental impact on football.
“Everybody has seen those pictures of people doing what they’re not supposed to be doing, but at the end of the day we’re different,” Rumpf said. “We have a set of standards to live up to. We can’t worry about what other people are doing. We have to lead by example. If they don’t see us taking it seriously, how can we expect them to take it seriously? We just want to get back to playing football. We’ll do all that we need to do to comply.”
Later in the day, ACC commissioner John Swofford released a statement on monitoring progress toward the upcoming season.
“The health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches and administrators remains the ACC’s top priority. As we continue to work on the best possible path forward for the return of competition, we will do so in a way that appropriately coincides with our universities’ academic missions. Over the last few months, our conference has prepared numerous scenarios related to the fall athletics season. The league membership and our medical advisory group will make every effort to be as prepared as possible during these unprecedented times, and we anticipate a decision by our Board of Directors in late July.”
The ACC announced no sports will begin competition before September. The first football game is Sept. 2, with N.C. State traveling to Louisville. But the Ivy League announced no fall sports and the Big Ten is limiting sports to only conference games.