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Football in the fall without fans? Or the spring with fans? Clemson ticket holders weigh in

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Stadium Clemson.jpg

Death Valley could be empty when Clemson takes the field in 2020-21. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

CLEMSON — Clemson's athletic department on Thursday afternoon emailed season ticket holders a survey oriented toward gathering information about attitudes for the coming football season. 

The survey, which was obtained by The Post and Courier, features one particularly sobering question:

'If it came down to a worst-case scenario, and these were the only two options, which would you select?

°Football in the fall with no fans in attendance

°Football in the spring with fans in attendance.'

Charles Hill, a season-ticket holder since the mid-1970s living in Columbia, hasn't yet completed the questionnaire. He isn't quite sure how he'll answer the question.

"I don't like either of those choices," he said with a laugh. "None of the above."

It was a difficult option posed to Clemson fans, many of whom are mindful of the dangers of packing the 80,000-seat Death Valley before the coronavirus pandemic is abated. But a spring season and the logistical headaches it would create hardly resonate as a favorable alternative.

Clemson's decision to canvass fan opinion indicates administration is wrestling with present circumstances, much like the rest of the college football intelligentsia. The Big Ten on Thursday announced its teams would only play conference opponents in 2020, as did the Pac-12 on Friday, and some reports indicate the ACC and others are moving in the same direction. 

A conference-only slate for Clemson would chop off the team's final game of the season – a Nov. 28 home date against South Carolina. The Tigers and Gamecocks have played annually since 1909. 

ACC commissioner John Swofford on Friday wrote in a statement the conference "has prepared numerous scenarios related to the fall athletics season."

"The league membership and our medical advisory group will make every effort to be as prepared as possible during these unprecedented times, and we anticipate a decision by our Board of Directors in Late July," Swofford wrote.

The Clemson survey reveals a window into some of the details with which decision-makers are grappling. 

It included questions about expectations for non-pharmaceutical stadium interventions (hand sanitizer stations, face covering requirements for staffers and fans, physical distancing facilitation) and willingness to practice game day flexibility (do without tailgating, accommodate physical distancing in stands, sit next to someone you do not know).

David Godfrey, a season ticket holder since 1982, deduced a common thread running through the survey. His family's tickets are in a part of the stadium that offers shade, and he's nervous about potentially being asked to sit in the sun. 

"I got the impression it was getting around to saying, 'We'll assign you a seat, and you sit wherever we tell you to sit,'" he said.

The bigger problem for Godfrey is safety, especially when it comes to pregame tailgates.

"I'm more worried about all those yahoos who get out in the middle of the aisle, and they bring 20 of their buddies, and they're all drinking," Godfrey said. "Those are the ones I worry about. Because they don't seem to care. They might not have the virus, it might not hit them very hard, but they don't seem to care about anybody else."

That sentiment points to a potential generational divide among fans' willingness to adhere to virus precautions. Godfrey said the Tigers' bigger donors tend to be older and more susceptible to the virus, which has killed nearly 900 South Carolinians and more than 130,000 Americans. 

When faced with the worst-case scenario question, he checked off the second option. A spring college football season would disrupt the sport's schedule and could result in NFL draft prospects sitting out, but for Godfrey, the risk of holding a season in the fall — even without fans — would pose too much risk for players and coaches given the absence of a vaccine.

Health experiments are hopeful a virus vaccine will be ready by the spring, but such an outcome is far from certain. 

"Football seasons will come again," Godfrey said. "Someone that loses their life, that's forever. They're gone. There's no makeovers, no tomorrows, no spring schedule. That's it. The way I see it is, why risk the lives of so many people?

"If you lose one person, why was it necessary to force the issue and play in the fall?"

Don Shelley, 73, took his time filling out the survey. He started attending Tigers football games when he was 7 and has continued the tradition with his wife for the past 45 years. Now they're joined by children and grandchildren.

Shelley opted for football in the fall without fans, citing the scheduling nightmare that could be created by a spring with football, basketball and baseball games happening concurrently. 

But he was hardly confident in his responses. His wife, Susan, chimed in. Her words carried a common sentiment.  

"I don't know think we know what the right answers are at this point," she said. 

Follow Joshua Needelman on Twitter at @joshneedelman.

Joshua Needelman covers Clemson for The Post and Courier. He's a Long Island, N.Y., native and a University of Maryland alum. He's won national and state awards in sports and feature writing, and for reasons unclear he still roots for the New York Knicks.

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