MONTGOMERY, Ala. – When Central Arkansas and Austin Peay signed up to play in the first game of the college football season, little did they know how notable it would become.
With a large cloud of uncertainty still looming over the sport, the teams will start the shortened season Saturday night in the Guardian FCS Kickoff Classic before a limited number of fans amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are the show in Week Zero and the game to really kick off football, not just college football but also professional football,” Central Arkansas coach Nathan Brown said. “Really the first live football game of the year is a big deal. We know it’s going to be a must-see game.
“We’re representing football players and football coaches across the nation right now. So it’s a big deal and something that we’ve talked about and educated our student-athletes about.”
It will be a chance to acclimate to the new reality for college sports in the pandemic. The NBA and Major League Baseball have played games without fans. The Big Ten and Pac-12 are among college conferences that have already opted out of playing this fall.
And while the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference and the Big 12 are scheduled to play, that's not a guarantee either.
Saturday night's game ordinarily wouldn’t cause much of a national ripple even though it does involve teams that made the FCS playoffs last season. But there is nothing ordinary about this season, or this game.
ESPN will broadcast the contest but the announcers will be working remotely. There were only 2,000 tickets distributed to the schools and sponsors, about 9% of the 22,000-seat capacity at Cramton Bowl, down the road from Alabama’s Statehouse, officials said.
Fans are required to wear masks entering the stadium or moving around, and practice social distancing at all times.
Concession stands will sell only prepackaged items.
One infectious disease expert said even with distancing in the stands, he’d worry about fans congregating at the entrances and exits more than about the players and coaches who are being tested regularly.
“But my biggest concern is compliance with mask wearing,” said Dr. Michael Saag, a professor of infectious diseases and associate dean for Global Health at UAB. “I’ve seen plenty of venues where masks are required to get in and as soon as people walk through the turnstile or the door, the mask disappears or goes around the neck. Cheering and screaming as well as singing are some of the most egregious activities as far as putting the virus into the air around somebody.
“And if somebody’s closer than six feet and a mask’s not being worn, even if it’s outside, there’s a pretty good chance of transmission.”
Saag, who described himself as “a huge football fan,” said he wouldn’t go to a game as a fan. He also noted troubling images of some high school games around the state, where fans, many not wearing masks, packed the stands. Unlike high schools, colleges have the resources to test players and staff at least weekly.
The Austin Peay and Central Arkansas teams were tested on Wednesday. Austin Peay interim head coach Marquase Lovings, who was elevated to the position in July, declined to disclose information on any COVID-19 positive tests on the team.
Central Arkansas athletic director Brad Teague said the school has been testing weekly since early August.
“There have been 3 positive results and those were not on the practice squad,” Teague said in an email. “We have lots of PPE and educate and remind daily of our procedures.”
Central Arkansas isn’t heading back to Conway for a while after traveling to Montgomery on Friday. The team is heading straight to Birmingham after the game and remaining there through Thursday night’s matchup with UAB.
The teams did travel to Alabama with a new focus on health beyond injuries.
“Make sure nobody gets on the bus that’s sick,” Brown said. “Bottom line: that’s going to be the key to playing this football season and obviously keeping our players safe, but also keeping Austin Peay’s players safe and not spreading the virus. That’s really the big difference.”
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