Coronavirus | Rob Oller: Football won’t return to Horseshoe until fans can, too

Rest easy, Big Nut and Buck-I-Guy. Ohio State football season will not begin without you.
Whether that makes Buckeye Nation mad or glad depends on your view of adult fans wearing face paint and a cape. Regardless, when OSU finally takes the field ― whether on Sept. 5 against Bowling Green or later in the fall or … gulp … who knows when? ― those two Horseshoe celebrities will be surrounded by thousands wearing scarlet and gray.
All the talk about football being played in empty stadiums? Just that. Talk. Speculation. Click-bait. When the government and medical professionals finally give the all-clear for games to be played ― mayors, governors and epidemiologists will have more say in the matter than Mike “Virus-Schmirus” Gundy ― fans will have factored into the decision. Not just because fans matter, but because football players do, too.
In that way, fans in the stands are 100,000 canaries in a coal mine telling schools it is OK for their athletes to go forward.
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As Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith explained it Friday, “If we don’t have fans in the stands, then we determined it’s not safe for them. So why would it be safe for the players?”
Smith also addressed player safety by including regular students in his wide-ranging comments on how COVID-19 will continue to impact college football.
“If students aren’t on campus that means the institution has made a decision that it’s not safe for students to be on campus. So why would it be safe for student-athletes?’’ he said, referring to the possibility of students taking online classes from home in the fall.
“When you have 100 football players, it’s hard to social distance in a locker room or training room. We have to not get into a place where we’re lax on our social distancing. I have to rely on the experts on that, because we cannot put our kids at risk.”
Smith is not alone in thinking games cannot go on unless fans and athletes are assured of being safe. Toledo athletic director Mike O’Brien shared similar sentiments.
“We all want football, that’s a given,” O’Brien said. “If we can have football, no matter when it is, then there’s more sense of normalcy, if there is such a thing. But I don’t foresee football without fans. At the end of the day, this is all about safety.”
Well, not all. Without fans shelling out to watch, eat and drink, the OSU athletic department loses the equivalent of Ryan Day’s annual salary each Saturday in the Horseshoe. Between ticket sales, concessions and merchandise sales, each home game brings in $5 million to $7 million in revenue, Smith said.
“Football season is vital to the budget health of our overall department. It is the driver of our budget,” Smith said. “While basketball contributes in a significant way, football is the elephant in the room.”
Millions in TV money means football could survive without fans in attendance, at least for a while. How would empty stadiums impact games? Players say performance would not deteriorate as much as many expect, but the fun of playing in front of a large crowd would suffer.
It’s a moot point, because games will go on only when fans can go in. As it should be. When will that be?
“I’m hopeful we’ll have a football season in the fall in some form or fashion. … That might be naive on my part, but I have to believe something will happen,” Smith said. “I’m entering this return-to-play thought process with the hopes that some model will work for the fall.”
Specific models have not been discussed, mostly because the Big Ten athletic directors have been busy working through other logistical issues, such as how to pay for the extra year of eligibility granted to athletes who are losing their spring seasons.
“We’re not going to rush this,” Smith said. “It’s a major societal issue. Football is important, but we’ve got people dying.”
Dying to watch football does not compare.
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