Eyeing Football’s Risks, a National Champion Eases Up

HUNTSVILLE, Texas – The coronavirus pandemic had already postponed the 2020 soccer season at Sam Houston State University until the spring semester of 2021 when the college’s athletic executives met over the winter to discuss a new puzzle.

With the spring and fall seasons approaching, the Bearkats were ready to begin a streak of up to 24 games in 2021, eight more than they’d ever played in a calendar year. When officials met at the sports director’s office, they considered two options: adding another game in September and bringing in an important payout of about $ 500,000 to the football program, or missing out on the opportunity and settling for a shorter regular season than almost all of them others.

Sam Houston’s leaders turned down the matchup. They argued that even one more game increases the health risks for football players – too many snaps, too many hits, and too little time between seasons.

“It makes little financial sense,” said Coach KC Keeler, who led Sam Houston to a national championship in May, about the rejection of the payout. “But I think we feel like we would be better served in terms of the well-being of our students and athletes, in terms of their experience, if we did it that way.”

The move was modest because it only affected one potential game, and the Bearkats might even benefit from playing one game less than their rivals. But when university officials told their colleagues at other schools about their plans, there was often a surprised silence. Division I football programs almost never aim to play fewer games in the name of injury prevention.

For sporting, cultural, financial and political reasons, there has been a projection of normality in all of college football for the academic year 2021/22 so far. Colleges have opened stadiums and began their championship hunts without so many testing and contact tracing logs that reigned not so long ago.

But in the Football Championship subdivision, a level of competition that attracts less attention and money than that which includes colleges like Clemson and Notre Dame, it comes in during a focused annual cycle that gets schools thinking about the ubiquitous football More burdened towards business as usual.

At nearly all of the roughly 90 FCS schools that appeared in regular season matchups in the spring – some played only a few, others six or more – the administrators decided that the benefits of a standard 11-game fall schedule reduced the risks of taking more snapshots than usual push in a year.

Sam Houston was reluctant, however, and university leaders saw the move forward in light of the team’s championship run. Nevertheless, the team is now expecting 20 games from February 27th. through 11/20 Missouri could mean four more postseason games through December.

By comparison, Alabama and Ohio State, who met in the College Football Playoff Championship Game in January, will not play more than 16 games in all of 2021. The title match for the brand powers of college football playing in the Football Bowl subdivision will be in Indianapolis in January.

The new pressure created by the FCS 2021 fixture list came at a crucial time for college football as a whole. Many sports departments are under financial pressure because of the pandemic and rely on football for their balance sheets. But doctors are still warning of the dangers of football, and top executives are considering expanding the playoffs, a move that could add at least $ 1 billion in revenue a year and add games to already long seasons.

As an FCS school, Sam Houston does not qualify for the big money playoff. But his decision this year reflects the mindset of some Power 5 coaches as the playoff expansion decision is imminent: there can be such a thing as too much football.

Everything hurt, said quarterback Eric Schmid after Sam Houston won the FCS title in May. His shoulder bothered him. His right ankle was in agony. A few days after the championship, Trace Mascorro, a 270-pound defensive lineman, had knee surgery.

“Everyone was sore and everyone was a little ready to deal with football,” said Schmid in Huntsville, north of Houston and known for its state prisons.

When Schmid appeared in a game that year, college football had already fought bitterly to play during the pandemic. The NCAA, which has no control over the college football playoffs but is responsible for the FCS postseason, used some of its decaying influence to move their championship event into spring. Many FCS leagues and teams followed, partly in the hope that the health crisis would subside and partly to bolster their prospects for the postseason.

The spring shift, however, left administrators weighing how fall football might be affected. In an era of medical scrutiny – apart from a pandemic – an NCAA-funded study published weeks before the spring season began highlighting the risk of concussion in football – they wondered how prudent it would be to play in the fall.

“There were concerns about student athlete overload,” recalled Dennis E. Thomas, commissioner for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. But in the MEAC, said Thomas, the decision to play a full schedule this fall was an easy one, as no team in his league played more than five games in the spring.

Dave Brown, a former ESPN executive whose Gridiron scheduling software has him on speed dial for many college track and field athletes, said he believes the reluctance to play shorter schedules could sometimes be attributed to an effort to garner enough wins to win one Way to pave the way for a postseason berth, as well as long-signed game contracts.

Still, some colleges had competitive reasons for having lighter schedules. Although officials from Mercer in Macon, Georgia were considering the medical implications of a 10 game schedule, athletic director Jim Cole said the university was primarily looking to optimize its chances of winning the Southern Conference title.

“We liked the way the schedule was laid out with our weeks off,” said Cole, whose football program, which comprised eight games in the spring, will visit Alabama on Saturday. “We were happy it worked out competitively and, hey, we saved our boys a game.”

Building a soccer schedule is a carefully maintained process. Administrators and coaches evaluate many factors, including travel and competitive interests, while investigating potential matches.

Sam Houston’s athletic director Bobby Williams has been doing this for decades. However, once plans were made for a spring season, he found that his story with the game worried about playing it so often and so quickly.

His father had been a high school and college coach in Texas; Williams himself had played high school and college football in the state and trained defensive backs with Sam Houston before becoming an administrator. He knew the rigors of training, the intensity of games, the pain of both, and the comforting comfort of breaks.

“Because of that experience, it was easier for me to understand what we were dealing with and how we needed to make adjustments to make sure we didn’t get into a bad situation,” he said.

Williams was particularly concerned about the limited gap between seasons, which usually runs from January to August, giving players time to recover. He realized that in 2021, Sam Houston’s players could end the season in May, return to campus in June, and start playing again in September.

He approached Keeler, who had his own concerns. Before the Bearkats started playing in February, he saw the wear and tear on the players’ faces and knew it was only going to get worse. The chaos of the pandemic – testing and tracking, waiting and hoping – fueled storms inside, he feared, and hits would certainly take the toll.

Like others around Sam Houston, Keeler was concerned about two outcomes: injuries and a team so drained it wouldn’t be ready to compete at a high level.

Since football was planned for the spring, a complete cancellation of the fall season was not feasible or desirable. (In 2019-20, soccer was responsible for about $ 4.4 million of Sam Houston’s roughly $ 20 million in sports revenue, according to federal data. More than half of all athletic revenue at the university comes from tuition, said Williams.)

And when a school like Sam Houston sets up a team, they want to play enough games to have a realistic chance of winning a championship. The best option, university officials concluded, would be to schedule an extra open week at the beginning of the season, even if that meant sacrificing a so-called money game. The Bearkats should start on September 18th and again on October 16th.

Keeler said he also adjusted training to respond to the spring hangover; for example, a more recent practice has become a walk-through.

Aside from the idea that more reps often make better soccer players – some of the most prestigious programs in the country spent the off-season studying the aftermath when so few games were played in 2020 – Sam Houston is likely to have little competitive risk. The committee that oversees the FCS postseason does not typically penalize teams that play fewer games if they think less exposure makes sense. And if Sam Houston had agreed to play an eleventh regular season game and lost, his résumé would have been a little less brilliant anyway.

In fact, there is reason to believe that an additional week’s break will strengthen the Bearkats for what will hopefully last into the FCS title game in January.

That’s one of the reasons why the players at a university that sporadically produces NFL-caliber talent offered little resistance, sometimes to their own surprise.

“The fewer games you play, the less likely you are to get injured, so I think everyone is on board,” said Schmid. “In a normal year everyone wants that extra game, especially if you’re a senior. But I think we realize that there is a bigger purpose. “

In a separate interview, Ife Adeyi, a wide receiver who caught the title-winning touchdown, was more direct: “We thought it was the right move because of the wear and tear on our bodies.”

Sam Houston officials acknowledge that it will be impossible to say for sure how much their strategy will help players avoid injury. They know their approach to this season in Huntsville is unlikely to become the norm.

For now, however, they say they are ready to give up college football in Texas – but hopefully only this time.

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