There are two sides to Nate Olson. On one hand, I am an eternal optimist. I grew up seeing the best in people and situations. If there is a chance something could improve, I cling to that. Am I as a positive as statewide radio host Rick Schaeffer who thinks his beloved Razorbacks always have a chance, despite facing a huge deficit? No, but I haven’t met anyone that positive.
The older part of me is the realist – a journalist. For most of my career I haven’t been paid to be optimistic, I’ve been paid to lay out the facts and in other cases give my opinions – straight forward the way I see them.
These two very different ways of looking at life have had me conflicted as I analyze the COVID-19 situation in our state and country. As I have written here a few times since March, I want sports back in a major way. To say I need sports wouldn’t really be an exaggeration. It’s my favorite pastime, my escape. Some people golf and hunt, I watch, talk and write about sports.
So, I desperately want to believe they will return in the fall. All along I’ve told myself, ‘If you can just get through the summer this will all be over by the fall and you can enjoy football.”
When I really start doing the countdown to football next week I don’t feel good about the prospects.
When I mention football, I am referring to high school, college and the NFL. Like my good friend and high school radio scoreboard co-host Rex Nelson, I have a passion for all three levels. Rex and I both attend games on Friday nights before we head to west Little Rock late Friday night to do the show heard on a long list of affiliates statewide. He is the longtime play-by-play voice of Ouachita Baptist and spends Saturdays following them across the state and the far reaches of Oklahoma. I am glued to the Hogs looking for column material and cover some games in person and also watch as many Iowa State games as much as possible. Rex is a die-hard New Orleans Saints fan, and I am an ardent supporter of the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs (Man, it feels good to write that.)
In early summer, I’d say the odds are all three are in jeopardy. High school is probably the most vulnerable. When you’re dealing with teenage students, administrators err on the side of caution. Earlier this month Jonesboro shut down its offseason athletic activities due to a positive case and this week reports are that both Lake Hamilton and Mountain Pine are dealing with similar situations.
If that happens during the season, that puts the Arkansas Activities Association in a tough spot. IF a school must cease competition for a period of time because of a positive case on its team, do they have to forfeit the next week or would one or a handful of schools with positive schools be enough to postpone or cancel the season? Those are tough questions, but I know many administrators and coaches statewide, and the biggest consideration is going to be the players’ safety. If it’s not safe, they won’t be on the field.
College is similar to high school in the fact, you are dealing with amateurs. Yes, they are older than high school kids but still student-athletes. The difference is there are millions of dollars at stake. There have already been reports of pockets of positive cases at schools such as Clemson and Alabama. Arkansas and Arkansas State have also seen isolated cases. It seems reasonable to assume as more and more kids filter into campuses that the cases will go up. What happens if the entire quarterback room at Alabama is infected the week before a game or half of Arkansas’s defensive starters can’t play in Week 2 at Notre Dame? Even if players are asymptomatic they will have to quarantine for 14 days making them unavailable for two weeks. That will be tough on a coach.
At what point does the NCAA pull the plug? Unfortunately, it may take a coach or player’s death to cancel the season. If a majority of Power 5 conferences were riddled with it that may also cancel the season. But, if only a team or two per conference was dealing with it, there is so much money at stake that most ADs would vote to continue knowing their budget would endure long-term damage without the cash cow that is football.
Even though the NFL canceled the Hall of Fame Game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys in August, if there is any football being played in November, the NFL has the best chance to still be standing.
Because the players are professionals, and the budgets are big, the testing procedures can be through and rigorous. There are reports that players may be tested every few days. NFL teams can isolate players at their facilities and hotels to protect them. Still, if enough players became infected, it too could fall victim to a cancelation. If it spreads in any of the sports or anyone associated to a team succumbs to it that will be it.
The facts are sobering and daunting. However, my optimistic side reminds me that there is still time remaining for hot spots to cool. Maybe a delay into September or October would work? But, my realistic side tells me there are too many hurdles to overcome. It doesn’t look good, and that is gut-wrenching.