Let's be honest: College football has no real plan to play in COVID-19 era
For the last few weeks, college football has been rolling out its plans for the fall.
The Pac 12 and Big Ten are going conference-only. The Big 12 is talking about trying to play a full schedule, and Oklahoma moved its season opener against that powerhouse Missouri State up a week so it could squeeze the revenue lemon for a little more juice. The SEC and ACC are huddling and trying to figure out how to squeeze in a non- conference game or two because, dadgummit, a year without Louisville playing Kentucky would be the real tragedy in this situation.
Of course, most of these announcements aren’t worth the bandwidth of the Tweet that revealed them. It’s sound and fury, signifying that the attempt to play any kind of traditional season is built on the same flimsy optimism of trotting out a college kicker for a 65-yarder into the wind. At the end of the day, there is no plan.
Monday’s revelation that the Florida Marlins were dealing with a full-blown COVID-19 outbreak in their locker room — and yet took the field anyway Sunday against the Philadelphia Phillies before knowing the true extent of it — should be an ominous wake-up call for college football leaders pushing to play a season this fall.
It’s one thing to say “we anticipate some positive tests and we’ll deal with them.” It’s something else entirely when a Major League Baseball team with no bubble to protect it gets shut down a week into the season.
The Des Moines Register contacted Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby on Monday to get his reaction, seeing how his league could very well come out with an announcement this week about how it wants to proceed. Bowlsby, who has typically been less sanguine than his counterparts in other leagues, said: “If we are advised that it is OK to play the season, we should all expect that there will be such disruptions.”
What happened to the Marlins, though, is more than a disruption. It’s a flashing neon sign that speeding toward a college football season while the country registers 60,000 new COVID-19 cases a day is likely to end as a failed experiment that ruins the credibility of everyone involved, not to mention putting athletes and staff members at some risk and contributing to the spread of a public health crisis.
You can forgive college athletics officials for believing months ago that the coronavirus would be under enough control by this point in the calendar to allow campuses to open up and college football to proceed, albeit with some precautions. You can certainly understand how they would have been sucked in by reassuring phone calls with the White House about the testing breakthroughs that were just around the corner.
But here’s the reality of where we are: Though many schools have not had major problems with COVID-19, at least 15 FBS programs we know of have had to shut down voluntary workouts this summer. Two others — LSU and Clemson — had outbreaks among a significant number of players.
And that’s before anyone has blocked or tackled for hours on end as players will be doing when practice cranks up. That’s before regular students come back to campus. That’s before teams start traveling from one state to another, all things that increase the odds of transmission and outbreak.
Meanwhile, administrators across college sports are scrambling to make sure they can comply with the testing requirements that are on track to be generally agreed upon by the FBS conferences. For some schools that have the proper labs on campus, it’s easy. Others will have to cut deals with private labs to ensure that the required tests on Wednesday or Thursday can be turned around quickly enough to play on Saturday.
Either way, by the time the game is played, negative tests are going to be two or three days old. Which means if someone contracted the virus in the interim and tests positive the next week, it could very well knock out big parts of two teams either through spreading it or contact tracing that determines other players spent 15 minutes in close contact with the infected person.
Even if you’re the type of person who is dismissive of the health risks to younger people or the moral implications of putting unpaid athletes in this position, how do you expect to get through a season without the whole thing collapsing? How are you going to manage to prepare from one week to the next when someone within the locker room inevitably tests positive on a Monday and everyone suddenly has anxiety about whether they’re going to have to quarantine for two weeks or what result their next test is going to bring?
None of this, logistically, has been thought out very well by college football. The plans, such as they are, hinge far more on pollyannish platitudes like LSU coach Ed Orgeron declaring in front of Vice President Mike Pence that “We need to play. The State needs it; this country needs it,” rather than any acknowledgement that football is actually pretty hard to play when a virus is running rampant through the country.
College football leaders are pushing ahead with their risky plans to play as soon as possible because they’re deeply fearful that if they significantly delay the season, they’ll never start. But at some point, they need to be honest with themselves: If there’s a reasonably good chance that they couldn’t finish the season or that teams would have to fold their tents a week or two in, what’s the point in starting?
If college football happens successfully, it’s only because the virus has been suppressed in this country to a point where teams have a good chance of avoiding it. Maybe that will be the case in October or November or February. But it’s not the case right now. Planning for anything else, as the Marlins debacle demonstrates, seems like a wasted effort.