Less than a week into the start of its regular season, baseball appears to have been caught flat-footed and it demonstrates the need for college football to have a clear plan about handling an outbreak. For as much as college football has been criticized over the past month for its lack of a national plan, its leaders have focused on flexibility and the ability to adjust on the fly. That sounds great in theory, but as the past two days have shown us, it’s tougher than it sounds to react to a major outbreak in the moment. The potential ripple effects for a sport in-season are very real, and those effects spread quickly.
Clear plans and strict protocols are more important than ever.
The Marlins learned Sunday morning that their starting pitcher for the afternoon and two other players had tested positive for COVID-19 and would be unable to play.
An apparent coronavirus outbreak was underway in the visitors’ clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park and the Marlins responded by asking their shortstop to determine if the game against the Phillies would be played.
“He’s kind of an unofficial team captain of our club,” Marlins manager Don Mattingly said of Miguel Rojas. “He’s always texting the group and getting the feelings of the group. So when we’re dealing with situations or things, that’s usually who we’re working through.”
Major League Baseball issued a 113-page operations manual to all club employees before the start of the season. It outlines everything from on-field rules to testing procedures and what happens if a player tests positive. But Sunday afternoon, the status of the game amid a coronavirus outbreak was decided by a group text message among Marlins players.
“We made the decision that we’re going to continue to do this and we’re going to continue to be responsible and just play the game as hard as we can,” Rojas said.
Yeah, that worked well. Best laid plans, and all. Makes you wonder which college football coach decides to take a similar bull by the horns, safety protocols be damned.
As hard as some of y’all try to reduce this to a binary choice of live free or cancel living, the people running college football are doing the same thing almost all of us are doing in real life, assessing their tolerance for risk. Sure, their task is complicated by the PR of insisting college athletes are not employees, but bottom line, they’re simply trying to figure out where the tradeoffs lie ($$).
In a conference call with SEC coaches and athletic directors on the morning of July 9, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey suggested that watching the NFL would provide the most analogous data. Earlier that week, an athletic director suggested all the pro leagues could offer some information that could be useful as college football leaders try to stage a season. “It would be nice if these pro leagues could get started so we could get a better idea about best practices,” the AD said then.
Although the people in charge of college sports would like to play football because not playing could cause a financial catastrophe within the industry, most ADs and coaches seem sensitive to the idea of college football players being the figurative canaries in the coal mine when it comes to full-contact football. They aren’t professionals. They don’t have a union to negotiate on their behalf. So most of the people who run college football would prefer the pros deal with all of this first if possible.
The problem is there isn’t enough data out there to know with any certainty where the reasonable limits are. So they wait and hope the pros can enlighten them, but even that can only tell them so much because college athletes exist in a different environment from their professional counterparts. There’s no way to put those kids in a bubble, like the NBA is doing, for example. And that’s before you even get to the question of rogue behavior by coaches and players.
What’s left is a combination of putting off hard decisions as long as possible and moving the goal posts as time runs out.
“Just look at (Big 12 commissioner Bob) Bowlsby’s quote already,” they said. “First, we said if students aren’t on campuses then we wouldn’t play sports. Now that many schools won’t have students, we have found a way to rationalize that away. Then, we talked about how monitoring the successes and failures of our pro sports peers would be informative for us, but we will rationalize this away, too. It’s already starting.”
They’re going to start a college football season. The question is what the finish will look like.