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The start date for college football will need to be decided at least by the middle of the summer, according to West Virginia University’s athletic director, who also happens to be chairman of the NCAA Division I Football Oversight Committee.

Lyons said during a discussion on the NCAA’s Twitter page that, while information changes constantly concerning the coronavirus pandemic that stopped the sporting world cold, there needs to be a date certain that colleges decide how they’ll proceed with a college football season.

“I think we need to start making decisions on the season obviously before July, mid-July at the latest,” Lyons said. “I think that starts shifting it. If it’s going to be a delayed season, what’s that going to look like? We’ll have a lot more information.”

Lyons was part of a three-person panel moderated by reporter Andy Katz, which included NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hanline and ESPN college football analyst Kirk Herbstreit. Debate has flowed through the spring as to when the 2020 college football season might begin. If it does begin at the end of August and first Saturday in September, Lyons said it won’t be a familiar setting.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the normal, the 60 (thousand)-to-100,000 fans if we start playing on Sept. 5,” Lyons said. “It’s going to look different from that perspective, but I’m still optimistic there’s a chance we’re playing football in September.”

That reduced number of fans will be necessary, Lyons said, to ensure the safety of those in the stands from a highly communicable virus. So far, the NCAA and its member schools have focused on how those in what they call the “inner bubble” — players, coaches and essential staff — can return. Then they’ll move out to an outer bubble of people who are still necessary to help run the event.

Then comes devising methods for the fans’ return. Lyons said there are plenty of factors to consider.

“You’re looking at ingress, egress, tailgating,” Lyons said. “Once they’re in the stands, are there ways you set people apart? There’s all kinds of logistic issues being looked at. Your concession stand lines, how do you keep those going? Do you have certain times where certain people come through the gates? You’ve seen the gates where there’s this mass of people all at one time.”

One of Herbstreit’s concerns in the process is that there is no one focal figure, like an NFL or NBA commissioner, who will decide on a uniform date and process. NCAA President Mark Emmert told ESPN recently that the association would not mandate a uniform return date. The decision will be made based on federal guidelines, guidelines in each state and the choices of each member school.

Lyons said competitive equity is a major concern, but things may not be totally equal.

“I do think there’s going to be those situations where there isn’t going to be 100 percent participation,” Lyons said. “Do we all wait until it’s 100 percent, or if 80 percent of the schools are ready to go, do we start the season? I think that’s the discussion that the conference commissioners will have to have.”

What gives Lyons optimism for college football’s start is the new information on the virus revealed regularly. What the NCAA knew about COVID-19 in March, when the spring athletic season was canceled, is different from what it knows now, and the organization should know even more in the coming months.

What Hanline thinks is almost certain is that dealing with the virus will not be a one-season situation.

“We’re cohabitating with this virus for a while,” Hanline said. “It’s unlikely this is going to magically disappear or mutate out in the near future. Even in a best-case scenario for a vaccine, we’re pushing well into 2021.

“There’s probably going to be a large percentage of the population that is going to develop this no matter what we do,” he added. “At some point, a large percentage of the population will have immunity, we hope. But that takes time to develop.”

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