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MSU football may return amid coronavirus but with fewer fans and face masks

Spartan stadium

College football might return in the fall despite the ongoing pandemic, Michigan State University President Samuel Stanley said in a radio interview Tuesday.

But if the Spartans play, Spartan Stadium likely won’t be more than 20 percent full, and fans will have to wear face masks, Stanley said.

While the shape of college sports – and college itself – remains uncertain for the fall, Stanley offered the first public prediction about how football Saturdays in East Lansing could be altered by the coronavirus outbreak.

“I’d love to see football, and I’d love to see some fans in the stands,” Stanley told WKAR in an interview aired Tuesday.

The coronavirus pandemic shuttered college campuses and spring sports seasons (including the high-profile NCAA men and women’s basketball tournaments). And while many colleges and universities have announced their intentions to try to return to in-person classes in September, sports have remained problematic, because of the physical contact between players and tightly-packed fans in the stands.

While Stanley’s radio interview doesn’t constitute an official decision about the football season by MSU, his statement could help shape the conversation about NCAA sports during the pandemic, since he is president of a Big Ten athletic conference school who is himself a medical doctor and former biomedical researcher who studied infectious diseases.

You can listen to the full interview here.

University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel, who also has a background in immunology, has been noncommittal in public statements about the return of football in the fall. Schlissel said recently that there would be no intercollegiate athletics at Michigan if students don’t return to campus. 

U-M hasn’t announced whether the university will return to in-person classes in September. Michigan State announced last week that it intends for students to return to East Lansing in the fall, though details of what campus life will look like are still in the works.

When asked about college football in the fall, likely before a vaccine for COVID-19 is developed, Stanley said “safety remains the most important consideration, [but] there’s ways this can be done, and it involves frequent testing of players and making sure they’re free of COVID-19, and coaches and trainers as well — making sure people who come on the field don’t show any symptoms that they are infected with the virus is probably the fundamental component of doing this safely.”

MSU alone can’t make a decision on its own about football — the NCAA and state executive orders will play roles.

The MSU president said that if football games are played, he anticipates some fans could watch inside Spartan Stadium — though far fewer than on normal football Saturdays.

“Maybe we could put 20 percent of our normal fans in the stadium, maybe it’s a lower number,” Stanley said. “Again, the state will have some say in this. We can spread people apart, six feet, whatever the public health people feel is best.

“What you have to manage is the entrance and exits from the stadium. We have these tunnels people go through. How do you stagger arrivals to make it safer for people and reduce contact?”

Spartan stadium holds about 75,000 fans. If university officials allow only 20 percent of seats to be filled to allow social distancing, a maximum of 15,000 fans could watch a game.

And singing the fight song might be a bit muffled: Stanley said fans would need to wear face masks.

“The critical thing, and I should emphasize again as we talk about the reopening of campus, is the wearing of masks,” Stanley said. “That’s something we weren’t so clear on in March (when colleges stopped in-person classes and switched to remote learning), how effective masks were. We now know masks are pretty effective.

“So if you look at what we’re looking to do, having individuals who would be coming to these events, our expectation is those people would be wearing masks.”

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