Questions loom as practice for UNC football starts Thursday

A handful of college football players have chosen to opt out of the upcoming season, citing health and safety concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic. Of those that haven’t opted out, some players, including those in the Pac-12 and Big Ten, are pushing their conferences for more transparency and better safety protocols, among other non-COVID-19 demands.

If their demands aren’t met? Those players say they won’t be playing this season. But they will keep their scholarships.

At the University of North Carolina, that was already the case.

“From our standpoint, what I have told Bubba Cunningham and our doctors the entire time: ‘I want to play, our coaches want to play, our players all want to play,’ ” coach Mack Brown said in a press conference July 31. “We have asked our players, our coaches and our staff every time we’ve talked to them, ‘If anybody is uncomfortable with this, go home. Keep your scholarship, keep your salary. We’ll see you when this stuff is over.’ And we have no problems with that. It’s not a macho thing. Tell me, tell your coach, have your parents call us. We want to make sure that no one is uncomfortable.”

Only one UNC player, offensive lineman Triston Miller, has opted out of the season “for family reasons,” a team spokesman said.

UNC has its first official practice Thursday, one of many schools to start their seasons this week. Following an NCAA Board of Governor’s meeting on Tuesday, the NCAA released a list of requirements schools and conferences must meet to participate in preseason, regular season and postseason fall sports. Among them is adhering to federal, state and local health and safety protocols, allowing athletes to opt out because of COVID-19, honoring scholarships and covering medical expenses for athletes who contract the virus.

“Our decisions place emphasis where it belongs — on the health and safety of college athletes.”

– NCAA President Mark Emmert

— Inside the NCAA (@InsidetheNCAA) August 5, 2020

“As important as football is to us, it’s sure not the most important thing in our country and in our world right now,” Brown said. “We’re just a small part of it trying to work out a piece that we really enjoy and make sure that we can make football work this fall.”

One thing that’s still unclear for coaches and athletes is when they’ll play each of their opponents. The ACC announced a new, reworked 10-plus-one football schedule on July 29 that didn’t include competition dates, but stated first games would be played Sept. 7-12. However, Brown said his staff is preparing practice schedules for games starting Sept. 12, 19 or 26 in case the season is delayed. The NCAA only allows 25 official practices prior to a school’s first game.

The “plus one” in the ACC’s scheduling refers to one non-conference opponent, but it might be difficult to find one. The Big Ten, Pac 12 and SEC have all chosen conference-only schedule models. On Monday, the Big 12 announced it would follow a nine-plus-one format.

“Scheduling’s gotten very fluid here in the last couple of days just because of decisions made by the ACC, decisions made by the SEC and some decisions that were already made by the Big Ten and the Pac-12,” Brown said. “Now we’ve gotta figure out who that plus one is and then you have to figure out when do you schedule them.”

Whoever UNC gets as its plus one will have to travel to North Carolina, as the ACC stipulated non-conference games must take place in the ACC institution’s home state.

Emily Leiker covers all levels of sports as a summer intern for The News & Observer. She is a rising junior at the University of Missouri studying print and digital journalism with an emphasis in sports.

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