Leadership at the University of Tennessee is preparing to host about 25,000 fans at home football games in Knoxville next month, Athletic Director Phillip Fulmer said Tuesday.
The announcement comes as colleges and conferences across the nation are canceling fall sports, with or without fans, and pivoting to virtual learning to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
“Whatever happens, it’s clear that the capacity in Neyland Stadium will be reduced if we get to start on time,” Fulmer said at Gov. Bill Lee’s Tuesday press conference.
Earlier in the day, Nashville Mayor John Cooper and leaders from the Tennessee Titans and Nashville SC announced that no fans would attend their home games at least through the end of September. City leadership is also encouraging UT’s Southeastern Conference rival Vanderbilt to play its games without fans.
Lee said he hopes the Titans will reverse course because he believes there is a safe way to host fans at athletic competitions.
Fulmer and UT leadership are consulting with officials at Bristol Motor Speedway in East Tennessee about ways to make the in-person experience safer than otherwise, as the racetrack hosted an event with about 30,000 fans, including Lee, earlier this year. More than two dozen UT students have tested positive for the disease since returning to campus in recent days.
Changes to the Neyland experience could include groups no larger than six people and “probably” no tailgating, Fulmer said. Other traditional gameday gatherings would likely be canceled, too, he said.
University of Tennessee Chancellor Donde Plowman said that football players will be tested for the coronavirus three times per week during the season and that players who choose to opt out will retain their scholarship and remain in good standing with the program.
“We are preparing to play and we remain hopeful that we will get to do so,” she said.
Fulmer, citing the possibility that the season could be delayed further than it already has, even went so far as to suggest that a spring season could be in the cards.
Twenty-three UT football players have tested positive for the virus since returning to campus in June, Coach Jeremy Pruitt said Monday.