How many positive tests before we pull the plug on college football?

Eufemia Didonato

So it looks like college football, collectively, is prepared to wait for one of its players or staffers to get critically ill or worse before it pulls the plug on summer workouts. As the positive COVID-19 tests pile up, as players pile into bars and pile out infected, few colleges […]

So it looks like college football, collectively, is prepared to wait for one of its players or staffers to get critically ill or worse before it pulls the plug on summer workouts. As the positive COVID-19 tests pile up, as players pile into bars and pile out infected, few colleges are taking a step back and asking, “Should we really be doing this right now?”

They should not. That is unfortunate. It is also obvious.

The relentless push for college football is above all else financial, although not necessarily in the same cynical way as the opposition to athletes capitalizing on their image rights. Athletic department budgets are built around football. The money football brings in funds scholarships and creates jobs. It puts food on tables. It is the lifeblood of college athletics. Delaying the season or, worse, going without one will impose an unprecedented austerity, and while that reckoning may someday prove to be cleansing for the bloated infrastructure of college sports, at what cost?

The same question could be asked of trying to play football without a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 in the first place.

Asking athletes to come back on campus when it has been deemed unsafe for students at large, in the middle of a pandemic, is asking them to risk their lives. Yes, the chances of a young, healthy athlete dying or becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 are small. But they are not zero. And while so little is known about the long-term effects of the disease, there’s some evidence even mild and asymptomatic cases may have consequences for lung function. For an elite athlete, even a tiny decrease in ability could be catastrophic.

It would be one thing if colleges have demonstrated they can limit and contain infections. In less than a month, with no other students on campus, we’ve seen that many schools cannot. That isn’t necessarily the fault of the colleges themselves — no one told a bunch of LSU football players to go to a bar — but it is a natural consequence of bringing a bunch of college kids back to a college campus.

A few positive tests upon arrival would be fine, proof the system works. The waves of infections after athletes have been on campus, including the LSU players and 23 Clemson football players, prove the system does not.

“It doesn’t make sense. The risk-benefit calculus is all off for me,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University who writes extensively about sports. “The risks outweigh the benefits. I was open to it when the plans were unclear and the level of disease looked to be a little lower in this country. I thought maybe some colleges’ plans could work, because we didn’t have any evidence to the contrary and there is a lot of randomness to this disease. There’s a lot of variance.

“But now we have example after example, even at big-time schools with a lot of resources, where the protocols have failed. I don’t know how much more evidence you need.”

Unlike their professional counterparts, college athletes have no one to collectively bargain in their interest. There is no union looking over anyone’s shoulder, no agreement between owners and players on the ground rules, no support for players and parents with misgivings. Athletes have to trust schools with their well-being, the same schools that have let players die during workouts (Maryland) or managers die on scissor lifts in the wind (Notre Dame) or run their athletes into the hospital (every rhabdo case ever). Penn State coach James Franklin doesn’t even want his family on campus, but it’s OK for his players.

They’re being used as lab rabbits to see whether schools will be able to bring back their student populations in the fall while colleges, budgets stretched thin already by COVID-19, don’t have the resources to test asymptomatic athletes on a regular basis the way professional leagues do. They can’t create one bubble for everyone at Disney or in Utah. Even then, one NWSL team had to bow out before it even got there. Golf, which should be the easiest sport of all to bring back, can’t keep players from picking up positives.

College football has more than one hundred leaky bubbles instead. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Yet colleges are plunging ahead regardless, instead of waiting until it’s safe. Or at least safer.

“At this point I’m confident about it,” ACC commissioner John Swofford said. “I think it will be a challenging fall and possibly an unusual one. We will rely a great deal on medical advice and what is appropriate under different governmental leadership. We’ve got 10 states. So it’s a little early to make definitive decisions but you have to be in position to make those when the time comes to make them. To be in that position you have to have a wide array of scenarios you are prepared to deal with.”

Just as Duke was the voice of reason shutting down the ACC basketball tournament in March, that university stands out as a pillar of sanity now. Duke has a plan to bring football players back to campus. It has yet to activate it. And on a campus where student attendance is going to be entirely optional — every Duke class will be available both in person and online — how can anyone justify making attendance mandatory for athletes?

There’s a grim axiom about sports: Nothing changes until someone dies. That was true of tackle football in the Teddy Roosevelt days, it was true of spectator netting in hockey and baseball, it was true of helmets in hockey, it’s even true of North Carolina high schools tracking athlete concussions because of the Gfeller-Waller Law. With every infected athlete, college sports is buying a ticket in the worst lottery there is. There’s a certain amount of risk inherent in athletics, but this danger is entirely self-inflicted.

There’s no way to rub some dirt on it. Dabo Swinney can’t punch coronavirus in the face. It’s an insidious disease that doesn’t care what wackadoo wingnut network Mike Gundy thinks is real news. No amount of stereotypical football machismo is going to let anyone play through it. It’s here. It’s real. You can’t just tough it out.

College football is one of the many aspects of our lives that should wait until we have this pandemic under control, whether that’s through medical advances or community measures. Other countries — Germany, South Korea — have made the latter work. We, to date, have not. This is one of the prices we pay for that. (And fans? Forget about that for a long time.)

How many more positive tests — how many hundreds more — will it take to finally send the college football players home?

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