The reopening of America is happening at a different pace in different states, and the return to college athletics could follow the same disparate course. This means it is possible teams and athletes in states that resume activity earlier could gain a competitive advantage over others that are on a less aggressive schedule.
And if that happens to disadvantage Notre Dame? Deal with it, athletic director Jack Swarbrick has told his coaches.
“I’m not concerned about competitive advantage or disadvantage,” Swarbrick told reporters on a Zoom conference Tuesday afternoon. “I accepted long ago in this pandemic that’s a natural consequence, and I have told our coaches over and over again: Do not focus on that issue. Focus on health; your health, your staff’s health and, most important, the health of our students. And we’ll go from there. Whatever the consequences are, they are.
“There will be great disparities that are inevitable in this. The NCAA will do what it can, I think, to regulate them. But you’re still going to have circumstances where schools aren’t open, and others are. Or states that haven’t reopened, and some have.”
Like all athletic administrators, all college administrators, Swarbrick is planning for a 2020-21 academic year whose very existence, in a traditional sense, is uncertain. Many university presidents have expressed an intent to reopen their campuses on schedule, but still they recognize that may not be prudent.
If ND does choose to open campus for the fall term — and Swarbrick stressed there is “an enormous desire to get back on campus” for a residential university such as Notre Dame, subject to safety considerations for students and staff — it is possible athletes could return to residence before the student body as a whole.
“We’ve all agreed at least six — and more likely seven — weeks would be required to safely prepare the football team,” Swarbrick said. “So, in the interest of safety there, just as with the decision to open the dorms, you have to figure out a way to assemble those students, to put them in an environment that’s safe … and to prepare them for the season.”
Swarbrick and other ADs are planning for many contingencies, including the possibility of football teams following different timeframes in sort of a “patchwork” season.
“One of the things that’s impressed me the most during this extraordinary period of time has been the level of collegiality and collaboration,” Swarbrick said. “I get to interact with the commissioners on a regular basis … and I can’t say enough the extent to which they are working together, spending time together, communicating with each other. And I think that’s the most important thing. It gives us a chance to come up with an overarching policy and ability to start together.
“Having said that, I think we all recognize there’s a significant chance that may not be possible, either because states or individual colleges and universities take different approaches. We just have to take the time to figure that out as we go. There are a host of questions that become a byproduct of that: How many games do you need to have in a regular season to have a playoff? What might a re-engineered schedule do to the postseason and the bowl games? What about records, what about Heisman Trophies? Does a team whose school decides it can’t participate in a position where it’s credited with a forfeit? I sure hope not.”
Other elements Swarbrick addressed in the 30-plus minutes he spent with reporters:
Liability is a concern relative to opening to fans, but it’s not unique to sports or college sports. “We share that concern, and that risk, with every enterprise that opens: with every restaurant, with every hotel, with every theme park, with every movie theater,” Swarbrick said. “I think all we can do is make sure we are complying with the best standard available to us, rely on the experience and expertise of the scientific and medical communities … We can’t let the threat of that risk fundamentally change the experience of our students.”
Negotiations with longtime coach Brian Kelly on a contract extension have continued “for a long time and, as soon as we get the opportunity to not meet by Zoom, I look forward to hopefully making an announcement about it.
Notre Dame typically sells fewer season tickets than other football programs with sold-out stadiums. It withholds roughly 50 percent of its house for those who enter a ticket lottery for individual games. As they consider how many fans could safely attend football games in this circumstance, that allows ND to consider whether to stop at the season-ticket base or to add a certain percentage of lottery winners to the crowd.
He said ND is addressing a number of items both for the gameday visitor experience (concessions, entry/egress, whether to have the traditional walk by the team to the stadium) and for student athletes (locker room space, practice approach, weight room capacity and maintenance).
“I think tailgating creates a much more challenging dynamic to control,” Swarbrick said, “to establish some regulations around and have it be the safest environment you can.”