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How College Football Is Changing As Conferences Decide Whether Or Not To Play

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Could college football teams play any games in the pandemic this fall? The Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences are out. Rutgers President Jonathan Holloway told MORNING EDITION the decision will have serious repercussions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JONATHAN HOLLOWAY: So much of your identity is wrapped up in your sport. And the amount of time you spend with your teammates is - you spend a tremendous amount of time with your teammates. And so this is going to be destabilizing for thousands of athletes across the country.

INSKEEP: Did you hear him say your identity is wrapped up with your sport? Could that be a factor as other major conferences make their decisions? The Big 12, the Atlantic Coast, the Southeastern Conferences - they are all still in for this season at the moment.

ESPN analyst Paul Finebaum has covered college football for decades and is on the line. Good morning.

PAUL FINEBAUM: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: I don't want to overgeneralize, but those conferences that are still in are centered mostly in the South, where football is huge and maybe even a bigger part of people's identity than elsewhere. Is that part of the reason their seasons are still on?

FINEBAUM: That is correct. In the South, football is a religion, and Saturday is the high holy day. And I know that sounds dramatic. It sounds like an exaggeration or hyperbole, but it is not. I've lived every day of my life in the South, and it's indescribable. It's impossible to try to convey in a short period of time how important it is. You don't have weddings in the South on Saturday. You don't have funerals either. You have college football. And quite frankly, rightly or wrongly, it's the only thing that matters.

INSKEEP: Hmm. So if we look at the Southeastern Conference, for example, which is still planning to play so far as we know, does that mean they're really going to play or that they just have been a little slower to pull the trigger than the Big Ten?

FINEBAUM: I hope I'm not surprising anyone in your audience that politics has entered into the fray in the conversation of COVID and college football. The Big Ten and the Pac-12 have announced they're not going to play. And the states are clearly more liberal, more progressive in terms of this virus. In the Southeastern Conference, there are 11 states. Ten, I believe, have Republican governors, so I know I'm answering part of the question in a rather circuitous manner. But just because they have not pulled the plug yet, Steve, does not mean they're going to play. All they're doing now is planning on and plotting ahead. The season was set to begin Labor Day weekend. In the SEC, it has now been rescheduled for September 26. So they have time, and they will use it.

INSKEEP: I want to grant that some people are in denial about the public health realities of the virus. Let's set that aside for a moment. Let's assume that a lot of college administrators understand that the pandemic is real, that it's serious, that people may die. Do you think that the cultural pull of football is so powerful in some parts of the country that people are just going to say, listen; we understand the risks - we really do understand the risks, but this is worth it - we're going to play?

FINEBAUM: Yes. I think in terms of the fans, the ones that I deal with every day of the week, that's what I've been hearing since March 12. They still do not - I don't mean to characterize every one of them - but a large - I would say more than half of the fans I talk to still don't buy it. And I know that a head football coach in this conference described the virus as a cold. So there is a lot of mixed messages. And that's why we are still having this conversation. I still think there's a reasonably good chance nobody will play college football this fall. But at least for the next few weeks, this debate will rage on.

INSKEEP: Paul Finebaum of ESPN, thanks so much.

FINEBAUM: My pleasure, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's host of "The Paul Finebaum Show." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.