LAWRENCE — On Wednesday morning, the Big 12 announced its intentions to move forward with fall sports, rolling out a nine-game conference football schedule to boot.
A few hours later, Kansas athletic director Jeff Long went a step further when discussing the Jayhawks’ own plans for the upcoming season.
"Unless something changes dramatically with a COVID outbreak or something in the community, I think that we will have fans in the stands," said Long, speaking on a video news conference. "But again, that’s just my thought at this point. It has to be approved really by the county."
When KU opens play Sept. 12 — Long revealed that date as when the Jayhawks will play host to their lone nonconference opponent, a foe still unannounced — David Booth Memorial Stadium will not be at 100% capacity. That number will likely be 50% or less, Long said, with season ticket holders prioritized.
Once the athletic department determines a maximum capacity and finalizes its strategy for safe implementation, that plan will be presented to the university’s COVID-19 strategy team, where Long expects it to be endorsed. From there, the proposal will go to Douglas County officials, who will have the final say on whether fans will be allowed through the turnstiles.
All of that assumes nothing changes "dramatically," as Long stated earlier — a comment that could also be used to describe the season itself if the pandemic intensifies locally or throughout the Big 12’s footprint.
Should such a situation unfold, Long said, KU won’t hesitate to shift gears.
"We can’t control the virus. We’re not in control of the virus. But we’ll respond," Long said. "There’s no guarantee that there’s not something else out there that we’re going to discover about the virus. When we do and if we do and if it puts our student-athletes’ health and safety in jeopardy, we’ll pivot, we’ll turn, we’ll find a new direction or we won’t play.
"I’m confident what we have in place now is safe and effective based on what we know today. If something changes in the future, then again, we’ll adapt. And that adapting could be discontinuing playing football in the fall."
The decision to do just that has already been made by a pair of Power Fives.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 cited advice from medical experts in their decisions Tuesday to postpone their fall sports schedules, with Pac-12 members receiving "eye-opening" information from their doctors on myocarditis — a heart condition that has been linked to COVID-19 — and other potential long-term health effects of the virus.
Asked why the Big 12 went in a different direction, commissioner Bob Bowlsby said Wednesday that "nobody has told (the league) that it’s poorly advised to go forward and do what we are doing." Answering that question himself, Long indicated Big 12 schools are better positioned outbreak-wise than some of their counterparts.
"They’re really very different situations as you look at the West Coast and the high levels of COVID virus infection that’s still going on out there," Long said. "And it ebbs and flows everywhere, but I think they’re in a very different situation than we are, and so I think it’s understandable that we could arrive at a different conclusion than they do looking at the medical information that we have. ...
"The dynamics of what’s happening in those states in the West or the states in the North are very different from what we have here, so we were going to make a decision based on the five states and the 10 schools in the Big 12."
No Jayhawk fall sports athlete had opted out of their upcoming season as of Wednesday night, Long said. And the university will not require players to sign hold harmless waivers in order to participate — "I don’t think it was legal anyway," Long noted.
The "loud and clear" message from the athletes with whom Long has spoken, he said, is that they want to play and want to play safely.
"There is risk, and there’s risk any time you play football, whether it involves COVID or not," Long said. "But we think we have provided them a safe way forward. ... We owe it to them to create the safest environment we can to play football. I think we’ve done that. I think we’ve demonstrated that to them."