Interim Texas President Jay Hartzell has sat in all the meetings and heard other Big 12 presidents’ concerns about playing football and having athletics in the fall.
His sprawling campus will already be half-empty this fall. About half of UT’s student body has opted for online-only classes. Still, Hartzell said Tuesday that he’s still on board with trying to start the season.
“I remain optimistic that there will be football in the fall,” Hartzell said on a Zoom call with reporters and other members of the UT community. “As you’ve seen from the way we’ve been communicating, our thinking continues to evolve around football.”
This came less than 24 hours after Hartzell participated in the Big 12 Board of Directors’ conference call where the league agreed to play a 10-game season. Each school will play its regular nine conference games and one non-conference game.
“We’re planning and waiting on the final word on when the season will start, but trying to push it back, such that we can a little bit, so that we learn more about how the disease is unfolding and also get to see how others are handling sports,” Hartzell said. “And so, what’s the experience in pro sports, for example, and how can that inform our decision making?”
The season is expected to start in mid- to late September, but a Big 12 spokesman told the American-Statesman that individual games could start earlier. For example, Oklahoma had previously received an NCAA waiver to play Missouri State on Aug. 29.
The SEC, which is also playing 10 games this season, moved its first day of practice to Aug. 17. There has been no word yet on whether the Big 12 will push back the start of fall practice, which was first slated for Friday.
“We know that this is a source of concern for people in the community,” Hartzell continued. “How is this going to work and is it going to be safe, not only for our student-athletes, but also, are we going to have an impact on, for example, the city of Austin if this doesn’t go well.
“So we’re taking it very seriously, and I know that (UT athletic director) Chris Del Conte and the entire athletics team is putting a lot of concern and care into it.”
UT leaders, including Hartzell, Del Conte and others, may want to have football. But Austin health officials have tried to discourage it.
Gov. Greg Abbott’s current mandate calls for a maximum 50% stadium capacity for pro and college stadiums. Kevin Eltife, chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, asked the school to look at going to 25% capacity.
Austin Public Health director Dr. Mark Escott felt that wasn’t good enough, either. He tweeted that in a crowd of 25,000 fans, 100 are likely to test positive for COVID-19. “Let’s stick to watching football on TV this Fall!,” Escott tweeted.”
Ultimately, whatever the city of Austin mandates carries no weight on the UT campus, something that drives city officials bonkers.
“We always want to be a good partner and a valued member of our community,” Hartzell said.
Hartzell said that as a university “you’ll always want to have that dialogue with Austin health officials and to be engaged with them as we make our plans.” Still, state guidelines and the UT System Board of Regents ultimately have the final say.
Hartzell indicated that UT may go with the 25% capacity. If that happens, that means about 24,000 fans would be allowed into Royal-Memorial Stadium, a venue that typically holds more than 100,000. UT’s overall capacity is down slightly due to the ongoing reconstruction project in the south end zone.
Of the 25% percent figure, Hartzell said that’s something “we’re spending more time exploring.” While there’s been no official declaration from UT athletics, some inside the athletic department believe 25% will be the final figure.
On Monday, Del Conte sent a letter to season ticket holders asking them to consider donating all or a portion of their 2020 tickets to the university as a “100% tax-deductible gift.” Those who wish to opt out this season can get a credit for 2021 tickets or a refund.
There are ethical concerns about all of this, though. Should a university be sending 18- to 22-year-old amateur athletes onto the field even when NFL teams are struggled with testing and players opting out for health reasons?
“I would certainly have ethical concerns if I didn’t think we could do so safely,” Hartzell said. “And when we’ve had calls with the Big 12, or a conversation on campus, all of our conversations have led with the safety of our student athletes and worrying about that first and foremost.
“So that is front and center on our minds, and we’ve been working with health officials to get guidance on how we think we can do this as safely as possible,” he added. “And we are now working with the Big 12 on guidance across all of (Power Five) conferences to have at least a minimum standard and we expect to exceed that standard in many ways.”
Hartzell said he expects UT will test its athletes “even more frequently than the standard dictates.”
Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec told the American-Stateman in July that he and athletic director Kirby Hocutt are comfortable with 20% positive cases on a team as a red-line of sorts for postponing a game. On Monday, he said Tech, too, would likely move to a 25% capacity on Saturdays.
“We have not specified ahead of time any hard rule as far as a call if there’s a certain number of positive cases on a team or in a community then there’s some trigger that automatically happens,” Hartzell told the Statesman. “But we know we’re going to have to adjust and look at the data.”
Hartzell said if data shows that players are getting infected on the football field, “we’re going to have to look at our policies or procedures and see where we didn’t make adjustments and do the best we can to figure out why it’s not working.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.