Briggs: Fear the universities that have all the coronavirus answers

By David Briggs / The Blade
Thu, 21 May 2020 16:45:28 GMT

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If you prefer your leaders to have all the answers, Auburn president Jay Gogue is your man.

For instance, will there be college football this fall? Will there ever!

“We’re going to open classes this fall,” Gogue said the other day in a virtual greeting to the university’s incoming freshmen. “We’re going to have fraternity and sorority activities. We’re going to have more than 500 club activities. We’re going to have freshman convocation. We’re going to have Popsicles and pizza with the president. We’re going to have football.”

USA! USA!! USA!!!!

Oh, and remember to pay your fall semester deposits! Deadline is June 1! War Eagle!

On the other hand, if you like your optimism tethered to reality, here is Gene Smith.

Asked Wednesday how comfortable he is that football games can be safely played in the fall, the Ohio State athletic director said: “I’m not 100 percent comfortable. That’s one of the things with this process, you constantly get educated — around the virus, around the disease … I am hopeful. I am cautiously optimistic, that I’m going to reach 100 percent comfort level, but I’m not there yet.”

I don’t know about you, but I prefer the honesty and humility.

And I would consider the motivations of anyone who speaks in pandering absolutes.

That’s worth remembering as many universities begin their final push to secure commitments from students understandably on the fence about paying the full freight for a potential less-than-full college experience.

The only thing we know about the fall is there’s a lot we don’t know.

If anyone tells you otherwise, chances are they’re a university president thinking: What do I have to say to get you into a college today?

Do I promise Popsicles? Pizza? Football? How about all three!?

I don’t mean to be cynical, and I’m not suggesting most university leaders are living in a fool’s paradise.

It is just that impossibly tenuous times do not encourage transparency and, to be sure, these are impossibly tenuous times.

Colleges have already lost tens of billions of dollars in revenue, and even in the best-case scenario, they are bracing for a bigger hit in the fall. Whether or not holding in-person classes in the middle of a global health crisis is sensible — and someone will have to explain how students will socially distance in the dorms — many colleges need the promise of students back on campus to survive.

The reason: One in three high school seniors say they are likely to defer or reject an admission offer if there are only online classes, according to a survey of 2,800 students by the Carnegie Dartlet marketing firm.

So, yes, it is important that schools paint an optimistic picture of student life in the autumn.

But there is a line between optimism — we’ll take all the hope we can get — and reckless bluster.

As much as certainty is assuring, it is important to embrace the uncertainty, and to be up front that college will go on, as fully and enrichingly as possible, but only in a way that is safe for the students and faculty.

Same goes for the return of football.

As universities prepare to welcome their athletes back to campus, this is but the welcome first step of a long ride into the unknown.

We all want to return to normal, and nothing in this loop of the Rust Belt would be more normal than the return of college football on hopping campuses.

I think back to a text a friend sent in the early days of the lockdown.

“No baseball. I will live. No basketball. I will live. No college football. That just can’t happen.”

I’m right there with him.

While I may work for the toy department of this newspaper, those toys have never felt more important, and nothing brings us together — and, wonderfully and bitterly, divides us — like college football. I believe we’ll have a season, once a few thousand questions — namely how schools will test players and how they will respond to a positive test — are properly answered.

But it’s OK to admit we don’t know what comes next.

I’ll trust the planners over the promisers any day.

“We need to not rush this,” Smith said. “I know everyone is anxious to do that. But we need to have the opportunity for our medical experts to continue to collect data, to see how our human behavior responds to the reopening environment across the country. We need to take into consideration not just Ohio but all other states.”

We need to have sense.

As much as the dollars demand otherwise.