As much as we may want it, there is no way to safely have college football games in the fall. Many have come forth with vague plans, but all of these make dangerous concessions and have obvious loopholes.
According to the NCAA, 73,712 college football athletes participate across D-I, D-II, and D-III universities. Even by the most conservative of estimates for the death rates of people 18-44 provided by New York City, that would still mean 15 players could potentially die from the disease (Spain estimates a death rate that would lead to 148 potential deaths for 20-29 year olds). That is 15 too many. If that happens, I think we would look back and wish that we hadn’t rushed back into playing football. I’m sure their parents would.
However, this does not include all of the coaches and staff which at some top-programs outnumber the players. These people are older and at greater risk than the athletes. Once again, if even one staff member or coach were to die from COVID-19 as a result of playing college football in August, I think we’d all question our motives.
At the end of the day, we can return to normalcy provided we follow the CDC guidelines of wearing masks, socially distancing, etc. But you cannot follow these guidelines in the game of football. The linemen have to line up 12 inches from their opponent, and grunt and grab them—facemask to facemask—every play for 3 hours. They have to tackle the ball carrier, every play, for 90 plays. They will sweat and spit and need oxygen on the sidelines, and sit on crowded buses and airplanes on their way home.
Other Teams Already Shutting Down
In the NBA, the Bucks and Kings already had to shut down their training camps after receiving positive results from coronavirus tests. Players must quarantine after a positive test until they receive two negative tests, so if this happens in a game, you could easily see an entire starting lineup sidelined from this highly contagious disease.
In college sports, The University of Houston, a school whose city is currently being ravaged by increasing COVID-19 cases, already had to shut down their voluntary workouts after six athletes tested positive less than two weeks after workouts started. They’ve shut down all sports for the moment. Expect this to become a regular occurrence if this season does indeed happen. Clemson also had 14 new positive cases recently, and a total of 37 cases on the football team alone.
The MLB returned 38 total positive tests in their first round of coronavirus testing, including 31 players. The NBA reported a 5.3% positive test rate, around the rate of US, and the MLS reported a 2.7% positive rate.
The coordination and buy-in required for college football to safely play games is impossible with 130 D-I teams. The NBA is trying to make it work by isolating 22 teams at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, and even that may prove troublesome if even one player or team staff member goes out without a mask, takes a trip to the beach, or even has an encounter with a hotel employee.
For the NCAA, isolating players isn’t an option. First of all, there is no place all 130 teams can go. These teams will have to travel each week to another part of the country and be in close physical contact with students from another school who may be taking their isolation more or less seriously than them. Then, they will have to come back to campus, bringing with them whatever is going on in their opponent’s part of the country.
Programs will shutter for weeks at a time
What do you do if even one player on your team tests positive? That player has to quarantine for 10 days after their positive test, according to the CDC. After contact tracing all those that were in contact with that player — which in the case of a football could easily be half the team (if not more) — then the CDC says that everyone in contact with the positive person needs to isolate for 14 days. In a close-quarters football locker room, that is easily the entire team having to isolate for two weeks — meaning players, coaches, physical therapists, assistants, and volunteers. And if these athletes are going to class, it also means all of their classmates.
Student-athletes will not be able to go to class
The student-athletes will have to learn online so not to expose themselves to other students who may be going to bars or going home, and also so not to expose other students to their germs from last weekend’s football game. However, you cannot realistically control this. Even without going to classes, players will undoubtedly interact with other students outside of athletes. College athletes are not paid employees, and they will break your rules and fraternize with other students, if not in class then in the dorms, apartments, and bars. These are 18-22 year olds we’re talking about, after all.
The athletes will not be able to hang out with other athletes outside their sport
If the tennis team is travelling to Maryland and the football team is going to Illinois, you don’t want to cross-contaminate these students and more than they already are. Not only is it exposing tennis players to Illinois Football germs and football players to Maryland Tennis ones, but it also makes contact tracing and the implications of a positive test much more widespread. Once again, if it’s hard enough to keep football players away from regular students, it will be near-impossible to keep them away from other student-athletes.
One positive test could shut down your previous two weeks of opponents’ programs too
If you just had a game last Saturday and now your player tests positive, doesn’t that also mean that your opponent’s team who was tackling that player all game also have to shut down? I think realistically it should. Anything less would be a dangerous concession to the guidelines laid out by the CDC, who are the experts on this sort of thing (not the ADs, as the universities would like you to believe). Additionally, the CDC deems “full competition between teams from different geographic areas” as the highest risk type of sporting activity.
Remember How This All Started
Let’s not forget that the NBA shut down the entire 30-team league after just one player tested positive for Coronavirus. If that was the standard before, I don’t see how it can change since you can’t suggest masks or social-distancing as an alternative to shutting down in sports. There are 130 teams in D-I college football, and around 100 athletes, plus dozens if not another 100 additional support staff at the top programs. Expect some of them to test positive in the close-quarters environment of not only college football, but universities in general, and for programs to shutter and reopen throughout the season.
Wait For The Vaccine
If LSU has to miss two weeks of games due to an outbreak in their locker room, or even sit 50% of their starters, not only does it put students and staff at risk unnecessarily, but it also reduces the legitimacy of the season. Personally, I’d prefer we wait and have a full and entertaining college football season in the spring—maybe even with fans—without having to worry about teams missing games, athletes getting sick, or something even worse happening to an athlete, staff member, or fellow student or faculty.
Let’s not take that chance, potentially taking a coach’s life 30 years early, or a player’s life 60 years early, just so that we can have football back 6 months early.