COVID-19 cases haven't deterred college football's quest to return, but when would they?
For all of the questions that lack answers, the biggest — for sports in our portion of the world, at least — keeps inching closer to one.
Yes, it does look like college football will happen this fall.
That’s the good news.
The bad? All those other unsolved questions that stand between now and then. They all demand attention, even the wildest hypothetical scenarios. Because the overriding goal is unattainable — safety in a global pandemic. Who knows what will happen?
For a college football coach, a meticulously organized world has been replaced by uncomfortable uncertainty. So many questions without answers.
“I could go on for an hour on that,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said recently. “But I mean, I can’t answer those, and I also understand why we can’t answer those. … Change is almost inevitable in the environment we’re in.”
How much change remains uncertain, along with so much else.
What is not, however, is the widespread commitment to playing. It is powerfully shared and has gained momentum, so much that stakeholders — players, coaches, athletics directors, university leadership, conference and NCAA officials, medical experts advising them all — can be more confident in this college football season being able to exist despite anticipated challenges.
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All of the above barely flinched, for example, when football players returned to campus this month for workouts and a small number of them tested positive for COVID-19.
We can’t be sure how many nationally or regionally, because many programs haven’t revealed results either way and will not. In the SEC, Tennessee did confirm that none of its players tested positive, but Alabama reportedly had at least five cases. Texas A&M confirmed some to the Dallas Morning News. Mississippi State had four. Auburn had three. There were others in other conferences.
“A day that we knew would come,” said Arkansas State University Chancellor Kelly Damphousse, whose school confirmed seven athletes from three sports tested positive, “not just at A-State, for colleges and universities across America.”
The University of Houston on Friday suspended voluntary workouts after six symptomatic athletes tested positive for COVID-19 in addition to a growing number of cases in the city. That combination caused the kind of swift action at a Division I institution that, while troubling, has so far been rare.
Otherwise, what could have been an alarming early setback in the sports’ efforts — think about the hysteria that accompanied sports' first COVID-19 cases in March — has been largely shrugged off like an expected visit.
“I think there was every assumption that we were going to find that there were going to be quite a few (players) that would test positive when they got back,” said Todd Berry, president of the American Football Coaches Association.
The lack of widespread alarm perhaps demonstrated how much the tenor has societally changed since March, but it also reflected levels of preparation by programs.
Safeguards were in place. Plans were coolly implemented. Workout groups had been limited in size, allowing players who tested positive — as well as those they’d been in contact with — to be isolated from teammates.
“We’ve had time. That’s what the spring sports didn’t have,” Austin Peay athletics director Gerald Harrison said. “Nobody had time to really look at it and study it and talk about it enough. Now that’s totally different. We’ve had several months to have people study it and see where it’s going. … The more we know, the more hopeful people get.”
Meanwhile, those early positive tests did little to slow the buildup toward college football’s return. The NCAA’s committee for football oversight on Thursday took a big step, recommending a timeline for preseason practices, according to Yahoo Sports. It would allow teams to return to the field for unpadded workouts in advance of preseason practices in August, essentially allowing six weeks for teams to prep for the season.
But the positive tests have been a subtle reminder that college students aren’t going to be any more immune to COVID-19 than anyone else, raising broader questions about efforts to conduct a season that clearly is going to be at the whims of a contagious, novel virus.
Why are we safer now than we were in March? “We’re not,” replied Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University.
“We will start developing the answers as we’re doing,” said Schaffner, who serves on an NCAA advisory panel. “This is not a circumstance where a lot of answers will be firmly in hand before we start. … We have to be flexible as we get more information and ready to change the plan. It’s much like war plans. They look great on paper, and the moment the war starts, you’ve got to modify them. And people have to be open to that.”
How many cases are too many?
It’s one thing, Harrison said, to have football players test positive for COVID-19 now, while, “It’s another thing to have people test positive in September and you’re getting ready for Tennessee-Florida.”
“That kind of stuff,” Harrison said, “will be different.”
How different? That’s just one of many hypothetical questions. Will fans be allowed at games? Will the season start late or end early? Will all state governments be on board for campuses to reopen for in-person classes? Will teams be able to play full schedules and bowls? Will some schools opt to not play football at all?
And yes, what happens once a team has players test positive for COVID-19 after the season begins?
“That one is probably not too far-fetched,” Berry said. “There’s no question there’s going to be probably some interrupted seasons or some changes in opponents that all of a sudden you find out on Sunday before the game. … You could have certainly a team play eight games and a team play 12 games.”
Another question: Who'll make that decision on the fly — when cases are present on a team — whether that team can’t play games?
Short answer: the conferences, probably.
“What is anticipated is that the various conferences will have to come to some sort of agreement, some sort of set of ground rules,” Schaffner said. “What does this mean? Are we going to cancel the game? Do we just pull those students and not play them? But we’ll play otherwise and test everybody more intensely? There are various strategies that could be implemented going forward — again, none of them being perfect.”
The topic grows more complex when acknowledging these decisions won’t be up to individual conferences or institutions alone. Local or state governments could outrank them, not just in terms of sports but also in campus activity in general.
“The SEC has been great in guiding us,” Vanderbilt athletics director Candice Storey Lee said, “and we also have to take into consideration locally what’s happening. What’s the landscape on campus? What’s the landscape in the city? What are the public health and medical experts telling us? It’s complicated because it’s all of the above."
Austin Peay's Harrison agreed that “conference offices will have more power than the NCAA” in terms of leadership and pulling schools together for collective athletics decisions like these, but there is a local element, too.
“I don’t know what the answer is to what’s too many (positive cases),” he said. “I think you’ve got to look at what’s going on in your area … and if we ever get above the curve, above the county rate, then that may be too much. We may have to channel back. We may have to sit a group down.”
Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, expressed caution about campuses reopening in June 4 testimony to a U.S. Senate committee: "These will be difficult decisions complicated by the participation of large numbers of supporters from all over the country for most college and university events. An infectious exposure could be a flash point for a significant widespread outbreak."
The main architects of college football’s return, people like SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, have recoiled at answering hypotheticals too soon.
Sankey didn’t respond to a series of questions submitted through a spokesperson for this story. But in an appearance in late May on "The Paul Finebaum Show" on SEC Network, Sankey remarked about the league’s annual preseason football media days — which will go virtual in 2020 — that he didn’t want “our coaches just in a 45-minute dialogue about ‘What if?’ ” at the event.
“I've gone through so many interviews where it's like, 'What if?' and there's this attempt to narrow a complex decision down to some basic element and elicit a yes or no,” Sankey told Finebaum. “And that's not the real world, but I'm asked that like five times a day. … I'm building a bridge as I cross the river, and I'm writing the operating manual as I do so. 'Unprecedented' is like the clichéd word now, but there's just not a rule book for this other than to make judgment decisions based upon the best available information, and that will take time.”
Tests: On and off the field
Hope is driving college football's plans to return this season. So is money, given that football revenue is vital to the bottom line for most institutions that play it. And that invites skepticism.
"I hope we do not, because big-conference football is a big-money thing, risk the lives of amateurs who are predominately minority by going back before we can, "said U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Most athletes, given their age and fitness level, would be considered less at risk for COVID-19. But many of their coaches — and other staff members — might not, a concern that's not unique to college football.
The question of what happens when positive tests arise is something all sports leagues are wrestling with while trying to resume play, be it the NHL attempting a 24-team postseason tournament or Major League Soccer's tournament to try to roll back into its regular season.
“There is no specific protocol for how many positive tests would have us take a step back and think about what happens next,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. “It’s why we’re so focused on regular testing and ensuring that we do what we need to do to keep our players safe and then managing what would have should a player test positive.”
“Obviously, we can’t be in a situation where we have an outbreak, and that will affect our ability to continue playing,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said, “but a single positive test or isolated positive tests throughout a two-month tournament should not necessarily mean an end to the tournament.”
Other sports could present a guide for college football, but efforts can’t be equated, given the existence of centralized leadership in professional leagues – as opposed to the NCAA, which is to be relatively hands-off – and the ability to pay for regular COVID-19 testing.
The NHL has said it plans to test every player every day during its tournament and is willing to spend millions for such precautions.
“The professional leagues have vastly more resources and much more control over the players,” Schaffner said. “Some of those leagues are thinking about very, very elaborate testing strategies. And these testing strategies, they cost money. I mean, we heard estimates this morning (on an NCAA panel) that for a football team for a testing strategy that involved an initial test and some sort of periodic testing throughout the season — maybe weekly — you were up around $300,000 and $400,000. That’s a lot of money. … We’re talking about intercollegiate athletics here.”
Harrison said that Austin Peay has sought to utilize cost-effective options — such as free testing through the department of health — that would allow all players to be tested before workouts on campus.
After that, though, it’s likely going to be a matter of testing only when symptoms present themselves. That’s for SEC teams, too.
“We’re testing the temperature and the symptoms every single day,” South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp said. “Unless any of those change, then we don’t plan on testing (for COVID-19) at this time.”
"This is not a time to tell kids to suck it up," Shelly Mullenix, LSU senior associate athletics director for health, said via the team's Twitter account. "We want to hear if you’ve got a sore throat. We want to hear if you’ve got an upset stomach. We want to hear about your headaches because the physicians have to be part of that decision as to whether or not you're safe to return."
Muschamp has told his players to be smart away from the football facility.
While staying out of trouble is not exactly a new message, the context of 2020 means activities such as washing hands and staying away from crowds — on what could be a crowded campus — could not only help win football games but ensure they even take place.
“The teams that are going to win this fall are going to be the mature football teams,” Muschamp said, “the teams that make really good decisions when they’re not in the building. … ‘Be very smart and mindful of where you are and who is around you, and make sure you have some knowns around you as opposed to the unknown.’ ”
That’s a lofty goal. There are unknowns everywhere, for college football and any other sport that is trying to play games again – while embracing unknowns like never before to do it.
“Those unknowns, I think, are dissipating every week,” Berry said. “… I’m significantly upbeat now that we’ll have some football this fall.”
Steve Berkowitz, Glenn Guilbeau, Marc Weiszer and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reach Gentry Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.