The script for fall football in the era of the coronavirus was written back in the spring.
Managing a nationwide outbreak of a virus like COVID-19 requires a robust capacity to identify infections. The United States didn’t have a testing program in place to meet the challenge in March when the sh*t hit the fan. August is right around the corner, and we appear no closer to a solution on testing. That puts the prospect of games in the fall on life support.
Here’s the reality of the situation after the NCAA released the latest testing standards for fall sports: The appropriate standard for football players involves daily testing with near-instantaneous turnaround times. We’re talking about a supremely risky environment for transmitting the virus. Without that level of testing, programs have serious gaps in visibility when it comes to the status of their players. In turn, cutting off potential outbreaks among the team becomes that much more difficult.
The NCAA is calling for teams to obtain test results for football players “within 72 hours of competition.” That protocol could work if programs are rigorously enforcing a bubble environment for players, a la what the NBA has going on at DisneyWorld.
Unfortunately, even the NCAA’s watered-down testing standards look like a pipe dream at the moment. As positive cases spike in hot spots across the country, lags in processing tests are stretching into the range of seven days. If that holds up, how could anyone expect to get thousands of tests processed every week within the prescribed three-day window?
Maybe the equivalent of a home pregnancy test for COVID-19 hits the market in the coming weeks to facilitate more testing. Maybe the demand for testing falls soon enough to shrink the processing delays. But start preparing yourselves for the likelihood of a spring season for the Oklahoma Sooners.
A few other scattered thoughts on the state of play:
*Given the flaws that were obvious months ago, the shot-callers in college football would have benefited from pushing a public information campaign in support of more government funding to improve and expand testing. It would be more ambitious than getting coaches to film PSAs encouraging social distancing, but it would have been worth spending some political capital in this case.
*Look, bashing Mark Emmert never gets old.
But the NCAA exists to give cover to its members. The idea that Emmert and the association should have taken a more active role in steering college football through this crisis assumes the schools wanted him to. And imagine trying to come up with legitimate solutions that meet the demands of major programs like Oklahoma and Group of 5 schools like Toledo. It’s impossible.
*Holding the season in the spring sounds like a logistical nightmare when you consider the possibility of two seasons in one calendar year. On the other hand, it would help avoid some uncomfortable decisions for schools about how to deal with eligibility issues stemming from a foregone season. How many programs would prefer not to carry more scholarship players than usual for another year? Unfortunately for them, that seems like the inevitable outcome if there is no football in 2020-21.