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What Are the Challenges in Restarting College Sports in the Fall?

With the Rutgers football program currently under quarantine, it’s time to look at the reality of the obstacles that must be cleared for games to take place anytime soon.

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Rutgers v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

With the Covid-19 pandemic now four months into severely impacting the United States, and with the news late Saturday of Rutgers suspending all workouts and quarantining its entire football team due to six new positive Covid-19 tests, followed by the NJ state Health Commissioner reporting the true number of positive tests is actually fifteen, we felt it made sense to reset and update readers of this site about where we feel things stand with respect to college athletics as a whole.

I studied Biology at Rutgers back in the day, and since then, I’ve spent over a decade working in industry research — while I readily admit I’m not an expert in public health or epidemiology, I have been following the science closely on this issue since the outset and I’m hoping it is helpful to summarize how things are going (and how college sports are impacted). I am going to try to keep this article as readable as possible, and also unbiased/apolitical by citing sources I feel are relatively neutral. Where I lean into conjecture or cite a source who leans in one direction, I’ll do my best to cite a source who leans in the other direction, as well. It’s important to listen to the experts.

This article operates under the assumption the pandemic is indeed very serious. As of this writing, over 4.3 million Americans have been infected by Covid-19, and nearly 150,000 have died. It is an incredibly difficult situation, and it’s unlikely to improve in time for what would typically be the beginning of college football season. That being said, let’s look at how things are going, how this impacts college sports, and the medium-term outlook.

The Current State of the Pandemic

Right now, the United States as a whole is not handling this pandemic well, with record numbers of cases and increasing numbers of deaths the norm, at least for the time being. There are regional differences in this, with the Northeastern US (and New Jersey, in particular), doing relatively well. As NJ Advance Media notes, though Rutgers was the fifth (!!) Big Ten football team to postpone and quarantine due to Covid-19 positive cases, it may be the most impactful because it took place in New Jersey, a state which (relatively speaking) has its stuff together from an infection control perspective.

Of course, even if Rutgers football had and continued to have zero confirmed positive Covid-19 players going into the season, the football team can’t just stay in New Jersey. Barring an NBA-like bubble for the conference, which almost certainly won’t happen, the team would have to travel (at least throughout the Big Ten conference footprint). Other parts of the country, including states Rutgers football would travel to for away games in the 2020 season, are experiencing higher levels of cases, a much higher transmission rate, and are generally varied in terms of the extent of state governmental response.

This, for now, leaves aside another issue readers of this article with school-age children can’t ignore – whether colleges and universities (and, for that matter, K-12 schools) can open safely and in-person in the fall. As of this writing, Rutgers is planning for a fall 2020 semester that will combine a majority of remotely delivered courses with a limited number of in-person classes, but like seemingly everything else in 2020, this is subject to change depending on how things proceed with the pandemic.

What About College Sports?

In a sense, professional sports have it easier than collegiate or high school sports (a completely different article could be written about the challenges high school athletics are facing right now). In professional sports, there is more money to go around, and the athletes are well-compensated professionals who can be plausibly asked to live in a quarantine “bubble” for two weeks, and/or take other measures to isolate.

Professional sports are also more geographically constrained than college sports. If you look at what’s currently ongoing in their world, the MLS and NBA are living in bubbles in Orlando. MLB recently started a 60-game sprint with more limited geographical travel (i.e., teams are restricted to in-division play, and even this isn’t working out well at the moment. PGA is maintaining a regular schedule of tournaments, but without a gallery (and you can argue golf is a relatively individualistic and easy-to-socially-distance sport, though they too have had their share of positive tests over the last several weeks).

College athletics has none of the above-mentioned advantages. In FBS college football, for instance, there are 130 schools, which all vary in their size, availability of resources, and level of support from state and local governments. Each school has its own schedule and unique challenges. Rutgers is doing a lot specifically to address these challenges, and when the first players tested positive on June 22, they were quick and transparent in dealing with the issue.

For other schools, the Korey Stringer Institute at the University of Connecticut has publicly released (and continues to revise) standards for returning to sports amidst Covid-19, which are the basis of what I write below. Schools who participate in college athletics are likely following protocols similar to KSI (though some things may be modified).

What are the challenges for a college football team?

  • How do you keep athletes, coaches, and support staff safe? Asking student-athletes to quarantine is a challenge for numerous reasons, including their ability to comply, mental health impacts, etc. Even though college age people are less likely to get seriously ill if they did get infected, coaches and staff are older and presumably higher risk. Testing accurately and frequently is a key to curbing spread of Covid in a close-contact situation (like college football), and schools (and parts of the country) vary greatly in their ability to access tests. Otherwise, an asymptomatic or presymptomatic carrier can unknowingly infect dozens of others, as was recently the case for the US rowing team in Princeton.
  • How do you handle it when (not if) someone tests positive? Pro sports have detailed protocols in place for isolation/quarantine and what needs to happen before a player who tests positive can return to practice or game action. As of this writing, the NCAA doesn’t have a standardized set of recommendations in place for college football season, which is scheduled to start in about a month. Contrast this with, for instance, the NJ State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA), which recently released and revised return to play guidelines, which are detailed over five pages. Guidelines don’t mean much if an outbreak happens on a team, but it’s at least helpful to know they exist in some places. It’s surprising the NCAA doesn’t have anything at the moment.
  • What about travel? If you’ve attempted or even considered air travel over the last four months, you know how harrowing the airport and airplane experience can be these days. Now imagine the logistical nightmare involved in this with a 90-man travel roster, plus coaches and support staff. Plus, with states doing so differently these days with respect to virus control, it’s unrealistic perhaps to expect a team from a part of the country with a lower infection level to travel to another area which is doing worse (and of course, “better” and “worse” are constantly shifting goalposts). It seems to be the case, simply by contrasting MLB’s current situation to the NBA/MLS situations, minimizing travel to the extent possible is helpful. This is a significant challenge for college football in particular.

What’s the Path Forward?

Two of the public health experts I follow on Twitter are Andy Slavitt and Dr. Scott Gottlieb. They are fundamentally different politically (Slavitt a Democrat, Gottlieb a Republican, as far as I can tell) but are both pretty much aligned in how they conceptualize the short-, medium-, and long-term future right now. You can read their op-eds if you’re curious about their positions, but the short story is it’s unlikely we can find “normal” again until there is a safe, effective, and widely available vaccine, and/or a series of treatments which can keep people from getting as sick when they are infected.

On the vaccine front, there are already five vaccines in Phase III efficacy trials and experts are largely encouraged by where we stand on this front. On treatments, there is already a treatment (an already-available drug called dexamethasone) which can keep severely ill Covid patients from being on ventilator, which is also encouraging. It’s unknown when we’ll have a vaccine which is safe, effective, and ready for distribution to millions of Americans, but an optimist might plausibly argue six to eight months from now, we’ll be in a much better place.

Given everything I’ve written, I just don’t see college football happening this fall, because of the patterns in testing, logistical challenges, and risks presented above – it’s a perfect storm of potential problems. I’m not sure how NFL football happens either, but I’d argue there’s a better chance of that happening. Football is just a challenging sport to play in the midst of a pandemic. Lots of close contact…

If the scientists continue to make quick progress on the vaccine and treatment front, I’m more optimistic about a college basketball season (especially if it shifts from a November start a few months back into early 2021). I can’t wrap my mind around how much it would stink to lose the 2020-2021 Rutgers basketball season, given the team’s promise (and how last season ended).

It’s important to remember, every pandemic in the history of time has eventually faded away (and the most recent global pandemic was in 1918-20, a time when vaccine science and immunology were in their infancies as scientific fields). This one will, too. It’s just a matter of when and how efficiently it happens, but I’m crossing my fingers and toes one day in the medium-term future we’ll be back here writing about practices and games and tournaments and such. That would be nice, not only because college sports are a wonderful distraction for us, but because it would mean things have improved to the point where the games can take place, hopefully safely for athletes, coaches, support staff, and (at some point) fans.