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Watching football risks, a national champion relaxes

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HUNTSVILLE, Texas The coronavirus pandemic had already delayed Sam Houston State University’s 2020 football season until the spring semester in 2021, when college athletic leaders met over the winter to discuss a new conundrum.

With spring and fall approaching, the Bearkats were poised to start a run of up to 24 games in 2021, eight more than they had ever played in a calendar year. When the officials met in the athletic director’s office, they considered two choices: add another September game and earn the football program a major payout of about $500,000, or pass the opportunity and settle for a shorter regular season than almost everyone else. .

The SAM Houstons leaders rejected the matchup. They reasoned that even one more game increased the footballers’ health risks, too many snaps, too many hits and too little time between seasons.

It makes little sense financially, said coach KC Keeler, who led Sam Houston to a national championship in May, of turning down the payout. But I think in terms of our student athlete well-being, in terms of their experience, we thought they would be better served if we did it this way.

It was a modest move as it hit only one potential game, and the Bearkats could even benefit from playing one game less than their rivals. But when university officials told their colleagues at other schools about their plans, a surprised silence often followed. Division I football programs are almost never meant to cut down on games in the name of injury prevention.

For athletic, cultural, financial and political reasons, there is so far a projection of normality in college football for the 2021-2022 academic year. Colleges have opened stadiums and started their chase for the championship without as much of the testing and contact tracing protocols that reigned not so long ago.

But in the football championship subdivision, a level of competition that attracts less attention and money than the level that includes colleges like Clemson and Notre Dame, the pendulum swings towards “business as usual” during a concentrated annual cycle that prompts schools to think about footballs that are always present burdens more urgent.

At nearly all of the 90 or so FCS schools that appeared in regular-season match-ups in the spring, some played only a few, while others had six or more administrators, deciding that the benefits of a usual 11-game fall schedule outweighed the risks of crowds. . jumps than normal in a year.

Sam Houston resisted, however, and college leaders saw the move as prescient given the team’s championships. Still, the team now expects to play 20 games from February 27 to November 20. A repeat bid by the Bearkats (1-0), who are ranked No. 1 in the FCS and have their home opener against Southeast Missouri on Saturday, could mean four additional games by the end of December.

By comparison, the states of Alabama and Ohio, which met in January in the College Football Playoff championship game, will play no more than 16 games in 2021. , will be in Indianapolis in January.

The new pressures created by the 2021 FCS schedule have come at a pivotal time for college football as a whole. Many sports departments are under financial pressure due to the pandemic and depend on football for their profits. But doctors still warn of the dangers of football, and top executives are considering expanding the playoff, a move that could bring in at least $1 billion more in revenue a year and add games to seasons that are already long.

As an FCS school, Sam Houston is not eligible for the big money playoff. But this year’s decision reflects the thinking of some Power 5 coaches as the decision on extending the playoffs looms: There could be such a thing as too much football.

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

Everyone was in pain and everyone was kind of ready to be done with football, said Schmid in Huntsville, north of Houston and known for its state prisons.

By the time Schmid appeared in a game this year, college football had already fought bitterly over playing during the pandemic. The NCAA, which does not control the College Football Playoff but is in charge of the FCS postseason, used some of its waning influence to move its championship event to the spring. Many FCS leagues and teams followed suit, partly in hopes that the health crisis would ease and partly to bolster their post-season prospects.

However, the shift to spring has forced administrators to weigh how fall football might be affected. Aside from an era of medical control pandemic, an NCAA-funded study conducted weeks before spring underlined the risk of concussion in football, which made them wonder how sensible it would be to play in the fall.

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

Dave Brown, a former ESPN executive whose scheduling software, Gridiron, has him on speed-dial numbers to many college athletics officials, said he thought the reluctance to play shorter schedules was sometimes due to the quest to get enough wins to make a difference. clear path to a post-season berth, as well as game contracts signed long ago.

Still, some colleges had competitive reasons for taking lighter schedules. While officials at Mercer, in Macon, Georgia, considered the medical implications of a 10-game schedule, Jim Cole, the athletic director, said the university wanted to maximize its chances of winning the Southern Conference title.

We liked the way the schedule was set up with our weeks off, said Cole, whose football program, which played eight games in the spring, will visit Alabama on Saturday. We were glad it turned out competitively, and hey, we saved a game for our boys.

Building football schedules is a meticulous process. Administrators and coaches evaluate many factors, including travel and competitive interests, as they research potential matchups.

Bobby Williams, Sam Houstons athletic director, has been doing it for decades. However, once plans were made for a spring season, he found that his history with the game fueled concerns about playing so often and so quickly.

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

Those experiences made it easier for me to understand what we were dealing with and how to make adjustments to make sure we didn’t end up in a bad situation, he said.

Williams was particularly concerned about the narrow gap between seasons, which normally runs from January to August and gives players time to recover. He realized that in 2021 Sam Houstons players could end the season in May, return to campus in June, and start playing again in September.

He approached Keeler, who had harbored his own doubts. 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 the storms within, he feared, and hits would certainly add to the toll.

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

With spring football scheduled, it was not feasible or desirable to completely cancel the fall season. (In 2019-20, according to federal data, football accounted for about $4.4 million of Sam Houstons, about $20 million in athletic revenue. More than half of all sports revenue at the university comes from student fees, Williams said.)

And when a school like Sam Houston is going to field a team, it wants to play enough matches to have a viable chance of winning a championship. The best option, university officials concluded, was to build in an extra open week early in the season, even if that meant sacrificing a so-called money game. The Bearkats are scheduled to leave on September 18 and again on October 16.

Keeler said he also modified the workouts to respond to the spring’s exhaustion hangover; for example, a recent practice became a walk-through.

Aside from the idea that more reps often make better footballers, some of the country’s most reputable programs have spent the off-season dealing with the fallout from playing so few games in 2020, there’s likely little competitive risk for Sam Houston. The FCS post-season committee generally does not penalize teams for playing fewer games if it believes a lighter load is sensible. And if Sam Houston had agreed to play an 11th regular season game and lost, the RSS might have been a little less beautiful.

There is indeed reason to think that an extra week off will bolster the Bearkats for what they hope will be a season lasting into the FCS title game in January.

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

The fewer games you play, the less likely you are to get hurt, so I think everyone is in on it, Schmid said. In a normal year, everyone is asking for that extra game, especially if you are a senior. But I think we realize that there is a greater purpose.

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

Sam Houston officials acknowledge that it’s impossible to say for sure to what extent their strategy helps players avoid injury. They know their approach to this season is unlikely to become the norm in Huntsville.

For now, though, they say they’re willing to give up some college football in Texas, but hopefully just this once.

Sources

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2/ https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/10/sports/ncaafootball/football-schedules-injuries.html

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