There is no social distancing in football. Here, Jackson State running back Jordan Johnson is swarmed by Southern Miss tacklers in a 2018 game.

The 2020 football season? To play or not to play, that is the pressing question.

And nobody has a good answer because, frankly, there isn’t one.

You ask me, playing football this fall is a 14-point underdog and the point-spread is rising. There is no social distancing in football, the ultimate contact sport. The days before the traditional start of football season dwindle. Meanwhile, the pandemic numbers continue to rise.

Rick Cleveland

Southeastern Conference athletic directors met Monday in Birmingham. Mississippi and Louisiana junior college sports administrators held an online meeting Monday as well. Mississippi public high school sports administrators met in Clinton Tuesday. Conference USA officials talk online nearly every day. The same is true in the SWAC.

The agenda for all meetings: What to do about fall sports, most especially football, in the face of the pandemic? Play as scheduled? Play a delayed, shortened season? Delay until the spring?

And what about attendance if football is played? Who gets into the stadium? How is that determined? What is safe? Using the six-feet-apart guideline, an 90,000-seat stadium becomes a 12,000-seat stadium quickly.

Jackson State already lost one game when Langston University canceled its 2020 football season. That was supposed to be the Tigers’ opener on Sept. 5. JSU’s traditional game against against Tennessee State at Memphis (scheduled for Sept. 12) also was canceled. The Tigers have scheduled a home game against Florida A&M instead. Fort Valley State has told Alcorn State it will not play a scheduled game on Sept. 12. Currently, Alcorn is scheduled to open its season Sept. 5 at Auburn. I wouldn’t bet on it.

The MHSAA Board of Directors Tuesday voted to delay the start of football practice to Aug. 17 and the start of the season to Sept. 4. Depending on pandemic numbers in the coming weeks, those dates could change. To say the situation is fluid is to say the Pacific Ocean is wet.

It all can be confusing. The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) has decided to move its fall sports, including football, to the spring. Nevertheless, Mississippi and Louisiana junior colleges, Region 23 of the NJCAA, still plan to play a reduced schedule in the fall. That’s fluid, too.

Where the SEC is concerned, millions and millions of dollars are at stake. But then so are lives.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey

Said SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey: “It is clear that current circumstances related to COVID-19 must improve and we will closely monitor developments around the virus on a daily basis. In the coming weeks we will continue to meet regularly with campus leaders via video conferences and gather information while guided by medical advisors. We believe that late July will provide the best clarity for making the important decisions ahead of us.”

Only one factor seems certain at this point: If you want to watch your favorite team play football this fall, you should be adhering to the safety guidelines currently in place. Sankey alluded to that.

“There has to be more intent and more focus on heeding the guidance that’s been provided on distancing, on gathering, on face masks, breathing masks, on hand sanitation,” Sankey said. “We still have a lot of unknowns. … Those conversations have ended with it will be important to watch what happens over the next two or three weeks. those aren’t overly hopeful comments. I want to be clear about that.”

Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen said he was encouraged by Monday’s meeting.

“All things considered, I’m really pleased with all the options that we have,” Cohen said. “I just think our league and Greg Sankey, in particular, are so well-prepared. Nobody wants to push the season back. Nobody wants to reduce the schedule, but nobody is more prepared than the SEC because of the leadership we have.”

Said Ole Miss athletic director Keith Carter: “I feel like we’ll play. I really do, and I’ve said that all along. There are still a lot of obstacles to overcome. What that looks like, I’m not sure. Will we start on time? I don’t know.”

Ole Miss is supposed to open the season against Baylor on Sept. 6 in Houston, a city currently besieged by the COVID-19 with more than 1,000 new cases reported for the last five consecutive days.

Sankey would be the first to tell you that the pandemic, not he or anyone else, will dictate the final decision. There is still a chance football could move to the spring, but that’s a last resort. Besides, there’s certainly no guarantee we will be any better off in the spring. A more likely scenario: There will be a delayed season that would start in early October and would consist of almost all conference games.

The clock is ticking. And pretty soon, difficult decisions are going to have to made so quickly it will put the old two-minute drill to shame.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.