External forces will determine college sports’ fate during the 2020-21 academic year. Coaches, commissioners and network brass can plan contingencies until their Red Bull IVs run dry, but the coronavirus, science and the general population are the leading actors in this drama.
How quickly can researchers develop a vaccine and/or treatments for COVID-19? How efficient is testing? Will a society stressed economically and psychologically from an extended pandemic follow suggestions regarding masks and physical distancing?
Indeed, those external forces have already prompted the Atlantic 10, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, Patriot League, America East, Ivy League and Colonial Athletic Association football to cancel or postpone fall competition. Moreover, NCAA return-to-sport guidelines issued Thursday illuminate how improbable fall football is, even for the Power Five conferences that desperately need the accompanying television revenue.
How improbable, you ask? This is from the NCAA:
“When an athlete tests positive for COVID-19, local public health officials must be notified, and contact tracing protocols must be put in place. All individuals with a high risk of exposure should be placed in quarantine for 14 days as per [Centers for Disease Control] guidance. This includes members of opposing teams after competition. The difficulty is defining individuals with a high risk of exposure, and in some cases, this could mean an entire team [or teams].”
Among those the CDC says require quarantine are individuals who were within 6 feet of someone with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes, and individuals who had physical contact — defined as touching, hugging or kissing — of the person.
Touching. Not to be flippant, but there is a lot of touching in sports, especially football.
The attempted threading of the needle even delves into absurdity with this gem: “Schools should consider the use of electronic whistles in practice scenarios to avoid the deep breath and forced burst of droplet-filled air that results from the use of a traditional whistle.”
Hate to break it to you, kids, but if a whistle isn’t safe, neither are blocking and tackling.
The NCAA guidelines are not mandatory, but they were vetted by the entire membership.
“It’s not binding, but I think it would be really, really difficult to not follow the guidance,” Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, said Friday evening during an NCAA video roundtable. “In essence, we’ve created a national standard.”
Power Five officials hope the guidelines lead to a stay of execution, and given the economic ruin that would follow a fall without football, and the uncertain prospects for spring, it’s understandable. But virus rates continue to surge.
“We just expected there would be an ongoing … downward trajectory of new infections,” Hainline said, “and it just has shifted so dramatically in the past month in a way that no one could have imagined. … It [caused] a major reset in our thinking.”
Compounding the issue are waits of a week or more for COVID-19 test results. If those delays aren’t resolved, the NCAA’s model of testing athletes 72 hours before competition will not work.
“That’s another disappointment,” Hainline said, “is the testing infrastructure in this country. There’s not a national oversight of that.”
Make no mistake, players are aching to compete, even if it means isolation.
“My approach is to limit my interactions with those not associated with the program as much as possible,” Duke offensive lineman Rakavius Chambers said last week prior to the Blue Devils returning to campus.
Sadly, that is where we are. To salvage fall sports, and perhaps winter and spring, too, college coaches and athletes will have to avoid the outside world as much as possible.
Are the rewards of competition and teamwork, not to mention the financial dividends for schools, enough to merit the sacrifice?
Each individual will have to answer the question, and if enough say no, or enough mistakenly believe they are immune from the virus, then the season is doomed, if it’s not doomed already.
“This is going to be player-driven,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said, “because when we start [workouts], we have the players two hours per day. There’s 22 more hours that have to be managed. The individual and social choices and commitment of our players to each other is what will drive the success or failure of this initiative.
“This can’t be managed into success. This is personal choice, based on commitment to team. And empathy, maybe even more than science, will drive the outcome to this, really considering someone else before yourself, which is a team environment or a family environment more than any.”
Mendenhall and Duke’s David Cutcliffe are longtime friends, since serving together on the American Football Coaches Association’s board of directors. Both have sterling reputations as tacticians and, more important, mentors, keeping football in context and welcoming real-world issues into their locker rooms.
So it’s not surprising that Cutcliffe and Mendenhall view the pandemic similarly.
“I’ve actually told our players this,” Cutcliffe said. “This may seem naïve, but I’m putting them in charge of that mitigation. I’m not going to follow them around. I told them we’re not going to put a chip under your skin to GPS you. … If they choose not to mitigate themselves, then we’ve got a problem. …
“Reopened means recommitment. Actually more commitment to mitigation than less. The biggest thing that I hope they buy in to is, it’s not about you, it’s about caring about someone else. That’s what the mask can stop. … That’s the real reality to this, and if you’re not concerned about others, then it’s just going to be very difficult.”
Impossible, actually. And even then, it may not be enough.
That’s because we as a people have failed miserably at mitigation, politicizing safeguards as simple as donning a mask.
“I’ve dealt with young people for 45 years professionally now,” Cutcliffe said. “I would agree with you that this is the biggest challenge that we have faced. … I think sitting back and letting these guys see what’s occurred [elsewhere] gives us a better chance for them to understand the seriousness of this.
“I am very optimistic, still. I was extremely optimistic, maybe six weeks ago to a month. We all thought hot weather would help us, and that has not been the case. … I think we can do this. I don’t think our world is going to have to stop, but I think our world needs to become more disciplined. So hopefully we’re disciplined enough to play some football.”
Speaking on the NCAA roundtable, West Virginia athletics director Shane Lyons professed guarded optimism. Lyons chairs the Division I football oversight committee and stressed there’s still time before decisions must be made.