Notre Dame President: 'No Way' to Allow Fans at Games Without Social Distancing

Joseph Zucker@@JosephZuckerFeatured ColumnistMay 26, 2020

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 8: General view of the stadium with the Word of Life mural, also known as 'Touchdown Jesus' and the Golden Dome atop the Main Building visible during the football game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Purdue Boilermakers at Notre Dame Stadium on September 8, 2012 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame won 20-17. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

In the event the 2020 college football season kicks off this fall, Notre Dame Stadium probably won't be at its usual 80,795-seat capacity. 

Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins wrote about how the school is approaching the COVID-19 pandemic in an op-ed for the New York Times.

Jenkins said the school believes the health of student-athletes can be preserved "with aggressive testing, hygiene and careful monitoring." He didn't have the same optimism about those attending games in South Bend, Indiana.

"Fans in the stadium, however, are a different matter," he said. "Fighting Irish fans regularly fill Notre Dame Stadium's 80,000 seats. I see no way currently to allow spectators unless we restrict admissions so that physical distancing is possible."

Last week, the NCAA Division I Council voted to allow for football and men's and women's basketball teams to bring students back for on-campus workouts starting June 1. That could allow for the 2020 season to kick off as scheduled Aug. 29.

However, games could lack their traditional electric atmospheres.

The sports leagues that have returned—most notably the KBO League and German Bundesliga—are doing so without fans. Even if the pandemic slows to the extent fans can attend events in the United States, packing them together in college football stadiums would carry an obvious risk.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said May 20 the Buckeyes believe social distancing could mean as few as 22,000 people entering Ohio Stadium. Relaxing distancing guidelines could increase the capacity to 40,000 or 50,000.

Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard wrote Tuesday the Cyclones are planning to cap Jack Trice Stadium at 30,000 fans—50 percent of capacity.

Of course, the regional nature of college sports will complicate matters. Building a uniform approach to the pandemic across all Division I schools is almost impossible.

Michigan president Mark Schlissel went a step further than Jenkins when he said the university wouldn't be comfortable staging football games unless the entire student body has been cleared to return to campus.

The Division I Council's vote represented a sign of progress, but a number of details need to be finalized before fans can expect to see college football in the fall.