Like a cornerback in press coverage, the ACC is on an island, its COVID-19 testing protocols for football more stringent than its Power Five peers. And for more than two months, with 65 games in the books, that approach caused nary a stir.
Then Saturday morning dawned.
Mere hours before the scheduled noon kickoff between Florida State and visiting Clemson, FSU officials decided not to play, triggering the season’s first game-day postponement and a messy public row.
None of this would have unfolded were the ACC’s football testing protocols like those in the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten or Pacific 12. But that’s not the issue.
The protocols were suggested by the ACC’s medical advisory group, which includes a representative from each member school, and approved by the league’s 15 presidents, all with a fervent intent to stage the safest season possible.
After Saturday, might the medical experts, presidents and conference athletics directors want to adjust the testing standards? Perhaps, and that’s fine, but given the current guidelines, FSU’s stance certainly was reasonable, as was Clemson’s frustration — the Tigers spent more than $200,000 on travel, followed guidelines and offered to play later Saturday or Sunday.
Subsequent public sniping among players and fans was predictable. College football fans, especially in the deep South, are wound a little tightly, and players are, well, kids.
But the adults who live the sport’s exhausting protocols should know better. Alas, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney on Sunday essentially accused 2-6 FSU of ducking his 7-1 Tigers, drawing a sharp rejoinder Monday from Seminoles coach Mike Norvell, who contracted the virus in September.
“Football coaches are not doctors,” Norvell said during his weekly news conference as FSU began preparing for Saturday’s home game against Virginia. “Some of us might think we are, but there’s a reason why medical advisers make decisions based on the information that is provided.”
Saturday’s postponement came in the wake of a Clemson player testing positive for COVID-19 on Friday, that result unknown to the Tigers before they flew to Florida. And therein lies the imperfection in the ACC’s attempt to play football during decidedly imperfect times.
The conference’s medical experts agreed that the safest way to stage a Saturday game was to have a third-party administer PCR (nasal) virus tests Friday. PCR tests are considered the most accurate, but they take time to process, and the samples are first transported to a lab in North Carolina.
SEC schools conduct their final pregame PCR tests Thursday so results are known before teams travel. The Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 use rapid antigen tests, the results of which are known within minutes, for their final pregame assessments.
The ACC took the most conservative course, opting for the most reliable test as close to kickoff as possible.
Florida State’s medical team was concerned that the Clemson player in question could have spread the virus among teammates, who could have transmitted it to FSU athletes on the field. College football has yet to discover competition spread, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.
The ACC increased its travel roster maximum this season from 70 to 80 players to account for possible late COVID scratches. But Florida State’s medical officials advised not playing, and according to FSU emails obtained by Out of Bounds blog publisher Andy Wittry, Clemson president Jim Clements “concurred with the decision.”
Less than a month remains in the regular season, but important games such as Notre Dame-North Carolina, Clemson-Pittsburgh, North Carolina-Miami, Notre Dame-Wake Forest and Virginia-Virginia Tech are still on the schedule. So a re-evaluation of protocols, especially in regard to knowing test results before teams travel, would be welcome.
That doesn’t mean guidelines should be changed. But the possibility should be explored.
“I’m not a doctor, so I’m not going to say if it’s medically sound,” Clemson athletics director Dan Radakovich told the ACC Network’s Mark Packer and Wes Durham on Monday. “I know from a logistics perspective it sure sounds good, to make sure everybody that’s getting on that airplane, that bus or leaving a campus is clear of the COVID virus.”
Radakovich and Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall floated the idea of a third-party arbiter in case teams’ medical personnel were at an impasse. But again, the university presidents wanted game-day decisions in the hands of their medical experts, and that’s where they belong.
With both teams idle Dec. 12, the week before the ACC championship game, Clemson and Florida State still could play. And with each contest worth more than $2.5 million in television revenue, the ACC will strongly encourage it.
But Radakovich first wants to ensure that Clemson’s home finale this Saturday against Pittsburgh happens. If the Panthers and/or Tigers are unable to play Saturday, he’d prefer to make up that contest Dec. 12, the better to collect home ticket revenue — Clemson hosts more than 19,000 per South Carolina guidelines — and avoid a second trip to Tallahassee, Fla.
“I would think that going back down to Tallahassee, while I wouldn’t rule it out, we would have to have a conversation about finances and the timing associated with that because we were there,” Radakovich told Packer and Durham. “We’re in the midst of an [incredibly] difficult financial year throughout college athletics, and Clemson is not immune to that.”
Norvell wryly countered that he’d donate to a Tigers travel fund, and let's not forget that Florida State stands to lose more than $2 million in home-game revenue if the contest is not rescheduled.
College basketball will have its own issues in a season that begins this week, but with teams playing multiple games each week, the ACC is not requiring day-before-competition testing, which should spare the conference further infighting.
The minimum standard is three PCR tests per week on nonconsecutive days, with one no more than three days before the week’s first game. Alternatively, a school may opt for daily antigen tests.
Mendenhall, whose internal conflicts about even pursuing this season have been evident throughout, framed the challenge well.
“We want to test as frequently as possible and as close to the game as possible to be as safe as possible for both teams,” he said, “so I think we’re doing the best we can as an ACC. … It’s hard to predict all these things before the season starts. There’s something new almost every week.”