Ohio State AD says safety will be paramount in sports' return

Could opening the Ohio State football facility to players for voluntary workouts be just the beginning of a return to normalcy for the Buckeyes?

Their big boss, director of athletics Gene Smith, covered that topic and several others during a conference call this week.

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Beyond the scheduled return of players to the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in June, here are eight things Smith discussed:

1. He is unsure of when full-team activities might happen

“I think between now and (when that happens) we have to get some guidance from our advisory group at the Big Ten, get some guidance from our local experts on what we need to do. Obviously football players can’t practice with masks, but they can social distance. How do we operate the locker room? So all those types of things have to be worked out, but we will rely on our medical people to give us some guidance on that so we haven’t gotten that granular yet, but we will.

2. Six or even seven weeks would be preferable to have the full team together before playing a game, but those are not required.

“You need some time to help the student-athletes transition, get physicals. If you want to test them, they all got to get tested and then just get re-acclimated. And then you can do a couple of weeks.

“Let’s keep in mind we won’t have the intense workouts that they’ve had in the spring, and even the voluntary workouts that we have in June won’t be as intense as they historically have been because typically those are group, high-intense workouts. So you’ve got to be careful with the muscle tissue injuries and things of that nature, so I would say that our best case scenario is to have that six-week preparation period prior to the first game. Can it slide? No question about it. You can slide it to five weeks or four weeks. It’s just what you do in that time frame, but the best-case scenario, basically from our medical experts and trainers, is to stick with that six-week window.

3. He is warming up to the idea of playing games with no spectators but optimistic that won’t be necessary.

“I struggled with it at the beginning, and as I continue to have conversations, I’m becoming more comfortable with that if that is where we end up. And I’m optimistic that we won’t. But if we do end up there, I think we can accommodate it. I think it’s still for me an interesting challenge to think that we could create an environment where our players who are in contact physically can be safe, but we couldn’t come up with a strategy to create a safe environment for X number of fans. So I still struggle with that concept. However, I could get there if that is ultimately what we do.

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“Obviously we’re fortunate with 100,000 seats in the stadium. So, could we implement the current CDC guidelines, the state guidelines around physical distancing, mask requirements, and all those type of things in an outdoor environment and have obviously significantly less fans than what we are used to? I think it’s possible. So I just feel like we have the talent, skill, and the space capacity to provide an opportunity for a certain number of fans to have access to our particular stadium, and of course that wouldn’t be true across the country because of capacity, but I think we can get there.

4. If they operate at less than full capacity, they would have some decisions to make as far as who can get tickets.

“Our point system has held the test of time, so that would probably be one (way they would decide). Then, of course, the parents, and the guests of our student-athletes and coaches would be a high priority. And so we would come up with a strategy but we haven’t nailed that down. We have played a little bit with the social distancing concept. And we know that probably would take us down south of 30,000 fans in the stands, actually closer to 20-22,000. So we’ve played with that a little bit as a framework to start as we move forward and think about what we’ll ultimately be allowed to do.

5. Smith said he would still prefer to play a full schedule.

He deferred to the legal department when asked about the possibility of breaking any game contracts via a force majeure clause (in light of extraordinary circumstances) but conceded a season of only Big Ten games could be considered if the season can’t start on time.

“First of all, obviously you want to play the full schedule and not just for us. We just talked about Bowling Green and Buffalo and its impact (financially for those schools). I think it’s significant for us to be able to try and do that. Then secondly, I guess I would lean to a conference schedule of nine or 10 games if we could work that out. I could probably be comfortable with eight, which would be challenging, but I was still better with 10 so you can do five away, five at home. You know, our kids want to play. And so it was hard for me to say eight games wouldn’t be important to them but I think it would be. And so there’s a few young man, this is their last opportunity. And so I want to make sure that, first and foremost with their health and safety in mind, whatever we can do to give them that chance I want to bend over backwards to give them that chance. And so for me to say is eight nine or 10 or 12, I would first and foremost probably end up talking to our kids and say hey, here’s where we are. What do you think? Because I just want I want to give them a chance.”

6. He did not have much to say about the potential financial impact on the department so far during the pandemic.

“We have some cost-containment measures we’ve been discussing internally. I have to compliment all of our coaches and unit managers and everyone that’s been looking at cost reductions in their operating budgets and I think as we get closer to what reality might be, we’ll get more focused on what we have to do there, but at this point in time we haven’t gone to that level of depth that most people think we would but we’re prepared to go to that level based upon what decisions are ultimately made.”

Regarding the possibility of cutting any sports, something several schools have done already this spring, he replied, “We haven’t gone to that level of depth, but of course discussions have occurred, but we haven’t gone to that level of depth.”

7. Fans (and reporters) might be looking farther ahead than the powers-that-be at this point.

“This is interesting because we’ve gotten to a point where a lot of your questions that you guys have asked aren’t really where we’re focused yet because we have been focused on the moment. We were focused on NCAA legislation around virtual meetings and virtual workouts and the transfer issues and NIL and now the Alston (lawsuit against the NCAA).

“So we’ve been focused on what we can focus on and hopefully get a decision on. Right now we can’t make a whole lot of decisions, and I think we’re starting to see it. I think Notre Dame just announced that they’re going to have school (in the fall). I think you’ll see decisions made that will sequence over time to where we can have some clarity and say, ‘OK, all right, now let’s make a decision based upon these facts that we have in front of us.’ Because everything we’re talking about right now today is speculative, which is fine, but it’s hard to make quantifiable end-game decisions until these other decisions are made.”

8. He will take safety into consideration first and foremost with any decision.

“Again you know that all those things are secondary compared to the health and safety issue. If we can’t put the kids in a position to play in a safe way then all other stuff is moot. And so if we are able to do that, television is satisfied because we can play the game and it will be televised. But then it gets to can we make sure the fans are satisfied? So there’s a sequence of things and the contractual obligations all are dependent upon the ability to play the game in a safe way for our student athletes. After that everything to me everything just rolls from there.

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“People are losing their lives in, and that’s you know that’s just unsettling. And so for us to not be touched by that, I just wouldn’t understand that. You look at what we’re asking first responders to do and I certainly wouldn’t want to have an event where we’re putting people in a situation where we’re going to stress our medical system if we weren’t being responsible. So I just I think we’ve got to be thoughtful about the human part of this whole thing first and foremost. That’s just who I am. It’s the way I operate.”

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