Thirty players in quarantine at LSU. Twenty-three positive tests at Clemson. Shutdowns at Houston, Kansas State and Boise State.
COVID-19 cases are mushrooming throughout the college football world as teams get back to work this summer. Of course, the Oklahoma Sooners haven’t been in the news since the school delayed reopening its program until July 1.
You could make the case OU’s decision looks pretty smart in light of recent developments. Unfortunately, those developments across the country also indicate the Sooners’ approach may simply be “less wrong” than the programs that got back in gear earlier.
Here are a few observations about some of the latest COVID-19 news and the 2020 season – from an admittedly non-expert perspective.
The ethical dilemma
ESPN’s Kevin Seifert picked up on something in a recent piece that I’ve also noticed lately: Ethical issues tend to get short shrift in the conversations around sports and the coronavirus. In fact, though, those questions might be more acute when it comes to college football than in any other corner of the sporting world.
It is true that the age bracket of college football players has a minuscule mortality rate. If a player is infected, the chances that he will die are low. Congratulations, the lowest bar possible for safety has been cleared.
But ending any conversation about the risks involved with mortality rates betrays an almost sociopathic level of recklessness. We know very little about the long-term health effects of the virus, so it poses an unknown risk to the safety of the players in that regard. Equally important, a college football team training, practicing and playing together while living in a campus environment is begging for a super-spreading event. That raises the distinct possibility of an outbreak starting with the team and radiating out into the surrounding community.
So there are implications for the public. Moreover, unlike professional leagues, players can’t collectively bargain over the terms of their medical care and participation. That puts the onus on schools to do more than just manage coronavirus infections as they pop up among their players; they should view it as their responsibility to actively work to prevent infections.
In other words, positive tests can’t be written off by the schools as a cost of doing business.
One thing to keep in mind for the upcoming season is that a program’s own prophylactic measures can only go so far once they start playing other teams. If a program’s testing and monitoring practices for the virus are shoddy, it puts opponents at risk.
Imagine the repercussions, for example, if a team has an outbreak in the middle of the season. Does that mean prior opponents have to enact quarantine measures that will affect their upcoming games? And how would increases in testing costs for those opponents be absorbed?
These kinds of potential stumbling blocks seem to point to a need for conference-only schedules played under league-mandated rules covering testing, withholding players from participation and the requirements to field a team each week. That would prevent programs from potentially suffering at the hands of others operating under overly lax standards.
This is going to be extremely difficult to pull off
While the idea of sequestering athletes inside a virus-free bubble for a season sounds great in theory, even the professional leagues are coming to grips with how difficult that will be. Expecting it to work in a college setting seems even more unrealistic.
Clearly, this creates a tension with the previous point about the ethical considerations of this entire project. College presidents and athletic directors find themselves in an impossible situation. They simply can’t afford to take an even bigger hit to their revenue from football that already seems likely to come this fall. On the other hand, the potential liability issues and risks to the reputations of their schools are significant.
Given the amount of institutional will schools have shown to even get their programs to this point, a 2020 college football season in some form or fashion still appears more likely than not. Nevertheless, it seems reasonable to say the odds are dwindling.