There’s a good piece from Seth Emerson this morning ($$) about why and how the powers that be can put together a 2020 college football season.
His premise is pretty simple: “College athletics faces a bad choice and a worse choice. The bad choice is trying to play through a pandemic. The worse choice is giving up before trying to have a season.”
He’s less cynical than I am about the financial motivation to play, but I do think that there is a non-financial element involved. Hell, I want college football as much as the next fan does.
Anyway, the key part of his piece is something you amateur epidemiologists can ignore, since you do all your research on Facebook, but for the rest of us, it’s a good outline of the parameters the sport faces:
Dr. Christina Proctor is a clinical assistant professor in UGA’s College of Public Health, specializing in health promotion and behavior. She also happens to be an avid runner and understands the desire to pull off playing any season, as hard as it may be.
“Can it (a football season) be done with no risk? No. There is always going to be a risk as long as COVID-19 is circulating, and of course, that risk increases with contact sports,” Proctor wrote in an e-mail. “Your lowest risk activity would be individual drills or conditioning. Team-based practices increase risk. There’s even more risk with scrimmages, and then highest risk would be playing teams from a different geographical area.”
That’s the hard part. But then Proctor adds:
“I will say as an athlete myself and someone who loves sports, I know that athletes have a short timetable and missing a season or year could jeopardize their future, so I empathize with the situation. There are procedures we can put in place to lower risk.”
Practicing in small groups. Virtual team meetings. Fewer or no visitors to practices and no non-essential visitors to practice facilities. No athletes with any symptoms should be showing up to practices or games, and regular testing is a must. Players with pre-existing conditions, such as severe asthma, diabetes or auto-immune disorders should be kept away from what Proctor called “high-risk activities.”
How do you socially distance while playing football? Well, you don’t. But that’s not as much of an issue if you have the resources to test regularly, such as on game days and at least once during the week, according to Dr. Travis Glenn, a professor who specializes in environmental health science.
“They’re going to be able to put into practice things that are going to be able to keep their players mostly safe,” Glenn said.
Dr. Glenn goes on to state the obvious — the less resources a program has, the harder it will be to meet that standard. Did I mention that two of Georgia’s first four games are against ETSU and UL Monroe?
Bottom line here, college football starts with two structural problems. One, unlike professional leagues, authority isn’t concentrated in a central office, but rather, it’s diffused in the conferences. That lack of conformity means a program like Georgia’s, presumably doing everything it can to minimize risk, is still going to run into issues when it faces off against a team that can’t or won’t do so.
The second problem is self-inflicted. When your position is that college athletes are students first and athletes second, you can’t really isolate them the way the professional leagues are planning to do with their players. And if you can’t isolate these kids on college campuses, keeping them away from Proctor’s “high-risk activities” is going to be nigh on impossible.
In other words, even at schools operating with the best of intentions, the odds are there is going to be a week during the regular season when COVID-19 rears its ugly head, and does so in significant numbers. What happens then is going to be the real challenge between bad and worse.