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Sport: Opinion: College football should consider punting its season until the spring

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Twenty-six of the football players at Kentucky’s three Football Bowl Subdivision schools are listed at 300 pounds or more.

Every one of them is obese as defined by the body mass index tables of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Every one of them, therefore, is at elevated risk of COVID-19.

So before America’s universities resume a high-contact sport pervasively played by enormous people, it’s worth asking how high a price they are prepared to pay. It’s worth asking whether football’s entertainment value and financial benefits outweigh the welfare of its players.

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These are questions that have been largely glossed over in the frantic search for conditions that can make football feasible during a pandemic. The stated goal is to follow protocols that make the game as safe as possible. Unstated, but no less pertinent, is whether the game can be made safe enough to survive the season.

a close up of some grass: Football on grass stadium on college or high school campus. School building in background. No people. Daytime. © fstop123, Getty Images/iStockphoto Football on grass stadium on college or high school campus. School building in background. No people. Daytime.

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Perhaps that’s not sufficiently optimistic to suit Rand Paul, but University of Illinois computer science professor Sheldon Jacobson has told CBS Sports to expect a 30-50% infection rate among the Football Bowl Subdivision’s 13,000 players, with between three and seven deaths attributable to COVID-19.

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“A few of them could end up in the hospital, and you’ll have a small number who could die,” Jacobson said. “I don’t want to sugar coat for you. I just want to give you the facts. ... If everybody comes together under normal circumstances, we’ll probably see that kind of outcome.”

In a word, yikes.

Already, several schools have decided to take a football sabbatical rather than tempt fate this fall: Division II Morehouse College and Division III’s Bowdoin College and Rensselaer Polytechnic.

At least three Power Five conference schools — LSU, Clemson and Texas — have had 20 or more players test positive or quarantined. And that’s been during “voluntary” workouts, before organized contact drills.

“How can we go forward with a season, given what we know about the virus, and think we won’t accelerate transmission?” Morehouse President David Thomas asked in an interview with Sports Illustrated.

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How, indeed?

The Ivy League is reportedly considering two scenarios. One would limit its 2020 season to seven conference games. The other would shift that condensed schedule to April and May.

With numerous states experiencing significant spikes in coronavirus cases, and no solution in sight, prudence demands that caution take priority over commercial considerations. Since college athletes do not draw a salary in return for the risks they assume, extreme caution would seem appropriate.

Wednesday, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster warned that he will not lift a state ban on spectator sports, "if these numbers continue to rise and the danger persists."

"I can’t do it. I won’t do it,” McMaster said. “This fall will not be like other falls. We will not be able to have college football. We will not be able to have high school football.”

There is no guarantee, of course, that a spring season would be safer. There is no guarantee that delaying the start of the season until next spring will produce a vaccine or allow for additional attendance.

It would surely disrupt football’s normal flow, playing havoc with spring practice and potentially squeezing two seasons into a troublingly tight window.

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Still, if postponement can ease the burden on medical professionals and testing supplies while buying time for science to find answers, those considerations probably ought to outrank short-term financial concerns and the preservation of traditional timetables.

“Every safe option should be considered, knowing the impact that football has on college athletics,” University of Louisville athletic director Vince Tyra said Wednesday. “If the time comes, I’m sure that option will be formally vetted for safety as much as economics.”

Athletic departments are so dependent on football that any delay, interruption or revenue shortfall can carry ruinous ripples. The University of Michigan is projecting a $51.6 million revenue decline for the 2020 fiscal year. The University of Connecticut, which reported a $42 million athletic deficit before the virus hit, dropped four sports last week.

Pressure to maintain cash flow will likely influence whatever decisions get made about college football in 2020. It would be shameful if it should cause universities to gamble with the health of their athletes.

Follow Tim Sullivan on Twitter: @TimSullivan714.

This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Opinion: College football should consider punting its season until the spring

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