East Lansing — Michigan State is scheduled to open the 2020 football season on Sept. 5 at Spartan Stadium against Northwestern and on Thursday, the university took its first step toward being prepared for that date.
Michigan State announced student-athletes in football and men’s and women’s basketball were being invited back to campus June 15 to begin the process to take part in voluntary offseason workouts, the first step in returning to action after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all sports back in early March, a move that wiped out the end of the season for some winter sports and completely eliminated most spring sports.
“I'm excited about the work that our medical team has done and the protocols they've put in place,” athletic director Bill Beekman said. “In addition to the medical team, our facilities team, our compliance team, and many others behind the scenes have worked incredibly hard.
“Student-athletes are the lifeblood of our athletic department. As we make decisions for the future, especially in these uncertain economic times, we evaluate them based on how they will affect student-athletes. To start to bring student-athletes back to campus will provide a boost of energy to our student-athletes, but also to many, many others in our department.”
The move is a comprehensive one that includes initial testing, a week of isolation and more testing before workouts can begin, including testing for all personnel such as strength and training staffs. The first wave includes football and men’s and women’s basketball, and will be followed later in the summer by other sports.
Freshmen and newcomers for football, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball are scheduled to return on June 29. Hockey student-athletes will return to campus to begin their testing on July 6. Additional sports will return at a later date.
“Our athletic training staff feels that we are ready to welcome back the athletes to return to workouts,” said Dr. Sally Nogle, MSU’s head athletic trainer. “Those that are willing to come back and want to come back right now, we will be ready for them.”
The biggest question for most major college athletic departments has been whether football would be played in the fall. As the source of the majority of revenue for schools, the prospect of football being canceled would deal a critical blow to the budgets and, in turn, affect nearly every other sport.
While there has been no clear determination on the upcoming season — and there is plenty that can change over the next few months — Michigan State’s move is a clear step toward being prepared to play as scheduled.
“Obviously, the goal is to play as normal a season as possible, to play as many of the games currently on the schedule as possible,” Beekman said. “And if we have to delay a week, then you think about how you shift the schedule. But the goal is normalcy, and to whatever degree we have to deviate from that we will as the virus requires.”
That includes holding preseason camp at what would be deemed a typical time in the calendar. Teams normally begin camp in early August, providing four weeks of preparation before the season begins. However, since spring practice was wiped out for most teams, there has been talk of adding to the length of preseason camp, essentially starting early.
Beekman said there are ongoing discussions within the Big Ten, including with commissioner Kevin Warren and the conference’s other athletic directors, about perhaps adding some additional practice time. However, Beekman said they need to be careful with the possibility of adding workouts that would extend the length of a typical season.
“There is some time sort of in the gap in between June and August, and I think we're still, as a conference, thinking through what, if anything, we want to do then,” Beekman said. “On the one hand, we don't want to create a football season that is functionally months longer than it otherwise would be. Because in fairness to the health and safety of the student-athletes, we need to have a season that gives them every opportunity to be healthy and safe, and extending the season doesn't necessarily do that.
“On the other hand, might there be some opportunity to have pockets of activity in July that would still be still allow for health and safety? Those are things that we're exploring and I think we'll probably come to conclusions on that in the coming weeks.”
Of course, as with many aspects of life, all the plans could change depending on the trend of the coronavirus.
“Football season is still several months away and, in the way that things have evolved with the pandemic, a week seems like a year's worth of activity,” Beekman said. “So what I say today may be completely different tomorrow, may be completely different a month from now.
“We've spent a lot of time thinking about the multitude of what-ifs and the scenarios that could occur. Of course, it’s purely hypothetical at this point, but our hope is to play the schedule as it’s been laid out. So, we'll keep hoping to achieve that goal until we can't, and then we'll move into the mode of implementing Plan A, B, C, D, E and so on as necessary.”
Beekman said football coach Mel Tucker plans to be back on campus next week and some of his staff slowly will begin to return, as well. But while emphasizing the player workouts are voluntary, the hope is much of the staff continues to be cautious about coming back to campus.
“It will be a phased approach over the summer with the idea that you don't have to come in just to be here,” Beekman said. “We'll be encouraging people to continue to social distance to continue to keep their health and safety as their highest priority.”
If everything goes as planned — a big if these days — and football is played this fall, Beekman said it’s likely there will be fans in Spartan Stadium.
How many will be allowed in is a tougher question.
“National facilities groups that have looked at this across college and pro football stadiums, the ranges have been between the capacity of roughly 17% on the low end to as much as 35% on the high end,” Beekman said.
Much of it depends on the construction of the stadium relative to aisle widths and sizes of corridors. Beekman said they already are exploring how fans would be allowed to enter the stadium, as well as looking at transitioning most sinks to operate with motion sensors and install touchless payment options at concessions stands.
And when it comes to who gets in, Beekman said students would come first.
“It’s a college football team, so students are at the center of what we do,” Beekman said. “The goal would be to accommodate students and as many season-ticket holders and major donors as possible, and that's a fluid number.”