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Some Conferences Are Determined: There Will Be College Football This Fall

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There will be college football this fall - maybe. That is the message this week from some top football schools and conferences. It comes after two powerhouse conferences, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, announced they were canceling their fall seasons because of the coronavirus. NPR's Greg Allen reports how colleges that are planning to play hope to protect the health of their athletes.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Even many hardcore college football fans are skeptical. How can well over 100 people on a typical team train and play without spreading the coronavirus, possibly shutting down the season? This week, three of the top conferences - the SEC, the ACC and the Big 12 - said they have plans this fall to play and do so safely. John Thrasher is president of Florida State University, which is part of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN THRASHER: And what we frankly want to send is a message to some of the other schools that may be teetering on whether or not to play football. We think it's in the best interest of our student athletes for us to play football. We can do it safely, and we can do it productively for them.

ALLEN: For fans, athletes and the multi-billion dollar sports entertainment complex built around college football, things looked bleak Tuesday. Two major conferences, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, canceled their fall schedules because of the uncertainty and health risks surrounding the coronavirus. The announcement by the remaining three of the Power Five conferences that they would have a fall season came after athletes began the #WeWantToPlay movement on social media. At Florida State, wide receiver Keyshawn Helton says he believes training and playing with regular testing and medical protocols in place may be safer than not playing.

KEYSHAWN HELTON: You talk about 18 or 22-year-olds just quarantining at their house, that's unrealistic. That's unrealistic. There's so many other things that, you know, guys are going to go do, which is not safe. So being here with my team and all of us together, it's the safest for us.

ALLEN: The college conferences are pushing back the start of their seasons to give them extra time to get ready and perhaps learn from the experiences of other sports. Putting players inside a bubble, like the NBA has done in Orlando, isn't feasible for student athletes who live on campus and have to attend classes. University of Miami coach Manny Diaz believes college football can learn from the English soccer leagues, which resumed play in June without fans. With so much at stake, he believes his athletes will be careful.

MANNY DIAZ: They're aware that they've got to keep their bubble small. They understand the value of what a mask does and who that protects. And if you're around people who don't have masks on, you got to find another place to be.

ALLEN: But with all that, there's risk in going ahead with the college football season. One concern that was reportedly a factor in the decision of some conferences to postpone play is new information about a heart condition, Myocarditis, that has been linked to the coronavirus. It's an inflammation of the heart that can lead to long-term problems. In announcing its decision to play, the Big 12 Conference said any players who test positive for the coronavirus would receive an EKG, echocardiogram, cardiac MRI and further heart tests before returning to play. Gabe Feldman, the director of the sports law program at Tulane University in New Orleans, says if the schools are transparent and take the right precautions, he thinks they can play.

GABE FELDMAN: Every school and athletic department has to be very clear with all of their athletes about what the risks are and what the unknowns are. And then the athletes have to have a choice.

ALLEN: It's one thing to play, but can there be fans in the stadium? University of Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin says he hopes so.

SCOTT STRICKLIN: We want to be able to have fans, and we hope we're in a position to do that. But, you know, you see this in the NFL. Their season now starts earlier than ours, and there's a lot of NFL teams that still haven't made determinations yet.

ALLEN: That could be the riskiest part of all. Some schools were posing plans that would limit attendance to 25% of the stadium's capacity, which would still bring together a huge crowd of 20,000 or more cheering, screaming fans. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.