News about the new coronavirus changes daily based on new information and spread patterns. Specifically, as the college football preseason approaches in the not-too-distant future, the implications of COVID-19 for college sports programs raise many questions and many more uncertainties.
Recently, the NCAA Division I Council took a big step by approving a six-week plan for a modified preseason schedule that adds a two-week period before the standard four-week camp. This model allows a punctual start to the CFB season based on your current supposed schedule.
There are countless guesses as to what this season will look like. College track and field experts have discussed possibilities ranging from no season (horror) to a completely normal season with full seats, and everything in between. There is no formula for predicting how the virus will behave in the coming months, and therefore the only pragmatic way for teams to prepare is to have multiple contingency plans ready to run.
The situation will be fluid, as it has been for all of society since the start of the pandemic. This season’s theme will be flexibility: flexibility within college football in general and flexibility within individual teams. Second and third chain backups should be ready to go in no time, more than in any previous season. If a starter tests positive for COVID-19, he will not play that week. If 20 athletes test positive in a game week, 20 athletes will not play. This is an added burden to, not in lieu of, the standard injury burden incurred in a typical season.
In the past two weeks, dozens of soccer players at LSU, Clemson and other schools have been reported to test positive for COVID-19 and are taking adequate precautions in isolating and tracing contacts. This news blew the proverbial candles out of soccer fans that led to preseason conditioning. For a dose of optimism, college athletes in general are a young and healthy population relative to the public. When college athletes test positive for COVID-19, they are usually asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms of a viral illness. They are generally well equipped to fight infection physically unscathed.
The testing programs established for major college football organizations will allow rapid isolation and contact testing of virus carriers, helping to limit transmission to more vulnerable populations. Also, and theoretically, if large groups of student-athletes contract COVID-19 during training camp and recover successfully, this could bode well for the immunity that will last the rest of the season. However, this is merely theoretical; It is still unknown whether people who have had COVID-19 once are immune to reinfection.
If soccer athletes are tested regularly for COVID-19, how often should they be tested? Daily tests would be optimal from an infection control perspective, but not practical from a cost perspective. There may be only a handful of programs that can afford testing at this scale. If University A has the resources to evaluate athletes twice a week, while University B only has sufficient resources for monthly testing, what is the risk of cross contamination for unidentified virus carriers when Team A play with team B in a game?
Of course, soccer is a sport of physical contact. There is more risk of transmission when playing soccer than in a supermarket with the same number of people. Although the coronavirus is not transmissible through sweat, it is highly infectious through respiratory droplets. If an infected athlete wipes his nose or mouth between plays, he now has coronavirus on his hands that will contact another athlete. Every time an athlete takes out his mouth guard, traces of the virus from his saliva will be on his hands. Therefore, every time an athlete tests positive for COVID-19, even if he is asymptomatic, he must isolate himself from the game.
Likewise, the potential psychological impact of the coronavirus pandemic on athletes this season cannot be underestimated. They will be in a unique situation of needing to prepare for each prospective outcome each week while paying attention to the possibility of testing positive on game day. This scenario would be analogous to a sprained ankle or hamstring strain during warm-ups and the sudden need to sit down for the next one or three games.
Student athletes will not be in a “bubble” like the one described for the NBA in Orlando. It is not feasible to have a soccer season without college students returning to classes on campus. It is a challenge to monitor 130 players and staff, but another is to throw 40,000 college students into the mix who cross paths on the way to class.
The course of the 2020 college football season will be unpredictable and sprinkled with challenges. The science of infectious diseases will permeate athletics more than ever. However, as a population, we are adaptable. It is extraordinary how much we have learned in recent months about the viral epidemiology related to the new coronavirus.
Ohio State plans to start August 25 in the fall semester, with guidance from the university’s Transition COVID-19 Task Force. There are university protocols to promote a safe environment on campus. Student athletes were provided with the “Buckeye Pledge,” an informational document to help educate them on CDC guidelines for social distancing and other methods of infection control. With the help of an expert attorney and prepared preparation, I am confident that I may have a soccer season this year, albeit potentially unusual.
Dr. Aloiya Earl is a sports medicine physician in Dayton. After a pause in writing while completing his Ohio state residency and his scholarship to the University of Alabama, he has joined Eleven Warriors as a medical columnist. She will write informative articles on injury, recovery, the implications of COVID-19 on college athletics, and various other topics in sports medicine and sports science.