COVID-19 affecting college, prep football programs well before their seasons start

There's a lot at stake, healthwise and financially

(KSLA) — The idea of trying to play football amid the coronavirus pandemic can be difficult to picture.

It’s such a high contact sport, which is exactly what you’re supposed to avoid when trying to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

To say everything is in flux right now is putting it mildly when it comes to football this fall.

That really came into focus this week with word that about two dozen Clemson players tested positive for the novel coronavirus, not to mention the now highly publicized quarantine of 30 LSU players.

Grambling State University recently announced that it’s in no hurry to bring its players back to campus.

And one of GSU’s players now has tested positive for COVID-19 while still at home, said David “Rusty” Ponton, vice president of student affairs.

“Students come first in everything that we do. And we have a little mantra that ‘if you put the students first in everything that you do, then the tough decisions become a lot easier'.”

University officials know the players just want to get back on the field and play, but the student athletes’ health and safety must come first, added Ponton, who also serves as the school’s athletic director.

So while some college football programs have begun adjusting their schedules, Grambling State has no dates set and is waiting to see what unfolds.

“The one thing that we say over here is that ‘the one thing we know for sure is that we don’t know for sure,,” Ponton said. “So we’re just going to take things really, really slow and put the kids’ health at first of all.”

There’s a lot at stake.

For instance, the the players’ athletic careers. And then there’s what is riding on the program financially.

“If we don’t play our first three games, we lose approximately $1.1 million in revenue,” Ponton said.

That amounts to 25% of the entire season’s anticipated revenue.

And proceeds from the football program help pay for other sports that don’t make a profit.

But there is something potentially worse..

“A worst-case scenario is that we played and kids contracted COVID and somebody died. That’s the worst-case scenario.”

COVID-19 is spurring the same amount of concern and uncertainty for high school football programs.

Among them is Haughton High, where the Buccaneers enjoyed a new level of success by making it to the state semifinals last season.

Now those players are reaching out to their head coach with questions about when they will be able to start practicing for this season.

“That’s what everybody wants to know. ‘What’s going on coach?' ‘What are we gonna do?‘” Jason Brotherton said. “Everybody thinks you’ve got the crystal ball and you can see into the future and predict what’s going to happen.”

The Buccaneers’ head coach said he does know one thing for sure about his players. They’ve started working out in preparation for the upcoming season.

And their ability to do so is limited by Louisiana staying in Phase II of reopening for at least another month.

“We were all anxious to hope that we were going to Phase III, which allows a lot more football contact, 7-on-7 type stuff,” Brotherton explained. “We didn’t get that.”

And the coach said he had heard some fears that Louisiana would fall back to Phase I. So, he said, at least that has not happened. “It can always be worse. That’s right.

“We get to see our kids every day. And they’re up here getting back in shape, having a good time, cutting up, laughing. And so, you know, it can definitely be worse.”

As a coach, part of Brotherton’s job is to keep his players focused and on target. He said that’s why he came up with an analogy for his team and the pandemic.

“I told our coaching staff I look at it like a big turnover in a game, you know. All we can control is what we can control. We’re going to deal with what’s been given to us, and we’re going to make the most of it.”

The pandemic’s financial impact also is evident in prep football programs.

For instance, COVID-19 forced Haughton High to cancel its spring game and fundraiser, meaning a loss of $9,000.

And each home football game brings in an estimated $10,000, Brotherton said.

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