It has been necessary to focus our attention on college football, which faces a stiff-enough challenge in its own right to play this fall. The NFL has a much better chance of being able to carry off a season. College football is a true question mark.
By Matt Zemek
If college football feels like a 50-50 shot at best (you might be more optimistic than that, but many others aren’t), high school football is a far less likely proposition for the coming months.
It sucks. No one has to like it or approve of it… but it’s real. If college football is struggling to get the tracing, distancing, and other logistical components in line, high schools obviously have even less of a foothold, less of an ability to create citywide and statewide safeguards which can keep even younger athletes safe, less budgetary clout to manage situations.
California’s high school association has already moved football to December at the very earliest, and probably January, with April playoffs. Within the SEC’s footprint, Louisiana has said it needs to get a far better handle on COVID-19 in order to have high school football this fall. Other Southern states are in a similar position.
The vulnerability of high school football
One can be somewhat optimistic about college football. There are dollars and administrative maneuvers which could at least attempt to play a handful of games under adjusted conditions. High school football is in a comparatively more vulnerable position. We have to face the real possibility that Friday nights in September, October and November will not be filled with the sights and sounds which are comforting, familiar, and part of Americana. The rites of passage for so many young people in many states and localities could very easily be denied them. It is a small but very real and potent part of the barrenness and devastation this pandemic is creating — and will continue to create — until we get a vaccine which is safe, effective, and can be distributed relatively cheaply.
So, we are brought to this basic but very important question: If we don’t get high school football this fall, what the heck is going to happen?
First off, California is trying to play in the middle of winter. Let’s take that as a possible scenario (I won’t try to predict how likely it might be — that’s useless speculation). If senior high school football players play in the spring (March into early June), there’s no way they will be physically recovered for a subsequent college football season. Playing in winter at least offers the possibility that they can recuperate in the offseason. However, playing in winter — during flu season — carries its own set of particular risks.
Consequencess of moving the football season
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that football is played in high schools across America in January through early April, and that there are barely any cases of COVID-19 among players. Even in that scenario — which seems like a best-case outcome at this point — recruiting won’t be carried out under the normal timetable. National Signing Day, the high school all-star showcases, the flurry of winter recruiting activity — they won’t exist, at least not as we have known them. Moreover, the aforementioned fact that players will play into early April (if they reach the state playoffs) gives them very little turnaround time for the 2021 football season.
Are coaches going to want to commit to recruits who get injured or — if not injured — take a pounding or (at the very least) get a lot of work in the winter football season? Think in particular of a high-workload running back who is asked to be the centerpiece of the offense. If that running back, as a high school sophomore or junior, does a ton of work in winter, the possibility of having to come back for a junior or senior season in the fall of 2021 could scare off a coach who worries that he will get an overworked and tired running back in Year 1 of college.
One can imagine all sorts of permutations and unusual scenarios due to an adjusted high school football calendar. It would be hard to expect college coaches to know exactly how to play their cards. Recruiting would be a lot more difficult to do. Recruiting outcomes would be harder to gauge.
Maybe some Southern states will be able to play fall football, meaning that the fallout and impact on the recruiting cycle won’t be as profound… but let’s say the postponements and disruptions are very pervasive.
It is hard to wrap the mind around the ripples of change that might create in the scholastic football world, with the high school landscape throwing college football recruiting classes into a state of unprecedented uncertainty.
None of us have firm answers, but we do have to start asking questions about the extent to which recruiting could soon change. Such is life in a pandemic.