For Hens, Hornets, football’s return is complicated

Delaware AD Chrissi Rawak, with football coach Danny Rocco, is still optimistic that football can be played this school year. Delaware sports information

Chrissi Rawak, naturally, has been asked whether there will be a Delaware football season this fall.

The easy answer for the UD athletic director is simply that she doesn’t know.

Who can be sure of anything in a world still learning to cope with the coronavirus pandemic?

Still, Rawak is trying to remain optimistic that the Blue Hens will be able to play football again in the not-really-distant future.

“I believe that college football will be played within the academic year,” she said this week. “Now, does that mean that it’s a spring sport this year versus a fall sport? Maybe.

“I can’t imagine that football won’t be played within the academic year. It’s just a matter of when and how.”

Which is really about the best any athletic official can say right now.

With NASCAR the only major U.S. sport to return to competition so far, even the most-informed conjecture about the future is still just an educated guess.

The athletic directors of the state’s only two NCAA Division I programs, Rawak and Delaware State’s D. Scott Gines, know fans really want to have sports back. That’s especially true with a big sport like football.

But they also realize there’s a lot more important people than them who have to make decisions first. College sports are fairly low in the order of importance right now.

“Obviously we are a piece of a much bigger puzzle,” said Rawak, “and the university working through what is our plan to bring back our staff and our campus.”

Asked if the first goal is to get athletes back on campus at DSU, working out safely, Gines answered, “that is always the goal.”

“However, we’re not in complete control of that goal,” he continued. “That’s subject to the governor’s and local requirements and guidelines — which are at different stages across our country.”

Gines said any college football season has to start with at least some percentage of students returning to campus first.

But when and if football can be played, he thinks it will have a positive effect beyond just the sport itself.

“Done well in line with community engagement, football is such a powerful thing for a community — particularly a community our size and a campus our size,” said Gines. “We want to do it well. But I hope that it’s also an antidote for reinvigorating community engagement as we come out of a lengthy shelter in place. Incrementally we can re-connect.

“The game is just the city square in many respects because not everyone who attends football games is necessarily a fan who’s going to live and die by the end result. They’re going to attend for the community engagement and the social element of it.”

Delaware State’s D. Scott Gines, with DSU football coach Rod Milstead, knows that football games mean a great deal to the community. Delaware State sports information

This past week, the NCAA did vote to allow Division I schools to conduct voluntary workouts on campus beginning on June 1.

But that just opens the door. Now individual schools have to decide — or find out if they’re even allowed in their own states — if they want to go through it.

Most notably, college football giant Ohio State has indicated it might start allowing players to work out on campus in the next few weeks.

Still, it all seems contingent on officials believing they can constantly sanitize equipment and facilities to limit the possibility of infection.

It’s probably also safe to assume that any major problems — like a virus outbreak associated with a specific school — will lead to rethinking the whole situation. And whichever schools go first in the process will be scrutinized by every other school in the country.

That’s because there’s no specific playbook for dealing with any of this.

“We’re all figuring it out,” said Rawak. “I don’t need to be first here (on returning to workouts). This isn’t about being fast, this is about being ahead in the end.

“There’s a lot of unknowns,” she said. “Which is obviously what makes this all so tricky. It’s dictated by the state and the university that you’re part of. The idea of flexibility — of nimbleness — is a staple for folks in our position.”

Gines said he thinks one result of this situation is that schools will try to play games closer to home. Any time a team has to travel by plane makes things more complicated.

“You’re going to see a re-emphasis on more regional scheduling,” said Gines. “I think that’s a healthy thing for those regions and those communities. Playing more frequently in your regional footprint is a powerful thing.”

Workouts are one thing, where physical contact can be limited and controlled. But how do you even begin to practice or play a sport like football where contact is a huge part of the game?

If there’s one thing coaches don’t like it’s when they believe other teams have an unfair advantage. That’s why, for instance, starting dates for preseason practice are strictly enforced.

But with so many states and schools having different rules and guidelines, Rawak said coaches may have to prioritize things differently for a while.

“This year is not about a competitive advantage or disadvantage,” she said. “This is about, let’s just see if we can get on the field. Let’s just give our kids an opportunity to find joy in competing against someone — and doing it safely.

“Our kids just want to get on the field. They just want to be with each other, they want to compete and they want to represent the University of Delaware. So let’s just keep it that simple.”

As for fans being permitted to actually watch games in person, that’s another obstacle.

Much of the talk nationally is either that games will be played without fans at all or with a limited number of fans spread apart in the stadium.

As much as anything, Rawak said athletic officials are going to need both fans and athletes to follow the rules for this to work.

“We’re all going to have to agree that we’re going to be really good citizens,” she said, “and do what we need to do to take care of ourselves to ensure that we minimize the risk. It’s going to be hard otherwise.”