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Oklahoma Sooners Football: OU’s COVID-19 plan demonstrates due diligence

Keeping players separated for as long as possible mitigates chances of an outbreak among the team.

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl - LSU v Oklahoma Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

While the entire world searches for signs that life will soon be back to normal in the COVID-19 era, college football fans are finding solace in news that teams intend to get back to work this summer. On Tuesday, the Oklahoma Sooners released their plan to restart football activities, targeting July 1 to begin “voluntary” workouts.

OU’s announcement also laid out a number of additional safety precautions, such as limiting the size of workout groups and using special sanitizing detergents for cleaning players’ clothes. Most notably, though, OU is reopening a month after the NCAA’s approved date of June 1 in a decision dictated by the school’s medical staff.

The later start stands out relative to other programs, many of which seem intent on adhering to a more aggressive timeline. On the same day that OU announced its July 1 opening, the ACC’s Clemson said its players would resume workouts on June 8. That’s consistent with the SEC’s conference-wide decision on when its members could reopen. Meanwhile, the Big 12 and Pac-12 have both pegged June 15 as the earliest start dates for their teams to get back to work.

Riley telegraphed OU’s call on reopening this month when he decried the perceived rush across the sport to bring players back to campus. He noted that in his mind, it was a matter of the later, the better.

OU’s coach reiterated that position on Tuesday.

“Our medical personnel have told us that the safest thing we can do is keep our players off campus for as long as possible,” Riley said. “We chose the latest point that we could bring them back and still have enough time to prepare.”

What makes the latest starting point the best option? Let’s talk about the downsides first.

First, schools like Texas and Ohio State are getting a jump on the Sooners when it comes to workouts. While OU players are training on their own, competitors will have access to school facilities to pump iron under the watchful eye of team staff. Assuming you can get the same kinds of training on your own versus workouts with teammates in the program’s weight room seems like a stretch. (All of that applies to nutrition, too.)

Second, there is something to be said for the idea that players can get superior medical care on campus than they can at home. As self-serving as that argument may be for the schools, it probably does hold true for many players. Should they actually need treatment in June for the coronavirus – or any other malady – they’re likely to be better off at school.

On the other hand, you only need treatment for COVID-19 if you’re infected with it, and keeping the players separated as long as possible remains the best way to prevent a mass outbreak among a team. Take all the prophylactic steps you want – high-intensity physical activity represents a high-risk setting for a super-spreading event. Then there are the realities of players socializing and living their lives away from the football offices.

Consider the impact of an outbreak of positive cases among a group of players. It poses health risks to those who are infected, who will need weeks off for treatment, recovery and isolation. Exposed players will also enter quarantine, which means extended time away from workouts for them. That could pose a serious setback for a team, not to mention the public-health fault lines created if the transmission chain extends to coaches, school staff members and the community at-large. It’s the doomsday scenario for a program, and the players spending more time together makes it more likely.

Perhaps other programs that get back to work sooner will sail through the summer without issue. It’s still a big gamble with a new virus, and the potential downsides from an outbreak are dire. It only seems prudent to limit the players’ time on campus as much as reasonably possible right now.

We may deem OU’s plan overly cautious in retrospect. For now, though, it looks like the smart play.