febeee69-26a6-53c1-ae73-62fe758dc6fa

Crews paint the field at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Jan. 9 in preparation for the College Football Playoff championship game between LSU and Clemson. As the 2020 season draws closer and athletic directors and commissioners try to figure out a way to play, medical experts said the overall number of coronavirus cases needs to decrease.

With about one month until college football's leaders must decide the fate of the 2020 season, cases of the novel coronavirus have increased across the United States and emerged within athletic departments, casting doubt on the feasibility of playing the sport this fall.

If a season is to happen, medical experts said, coronavirus cases need to decrease.

“We're in the worst place we've ever been in this epidemic, and I see no signs of it getting better in the next three to four weeks," said Dr. Michael Saag, a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at UAB. "... I'm very worried about what this means for college football."

The prospect of an uninterrupted season looked promising 10 days ago, when the NCAA approved an extended preseason practice plan. But coronavirus cases have risen throughout the South, Southwest and Far West, forcing multiple states to halt reopening plans.

Similarly, various numbers of cases have appeared within major college football programs. Since players began voluntary workouts earlier this month, Clemson, Texas Tech and Texas have announced dozens of positive cases. Houston and Kansas State suspended voluntary workouts. Boise State closed all university facilities through Sunday.

The Advocate reported several positive tests at LSU, which at one point quarantined at least 30 players, according to a report from Sports Illustrated, because they either tested positive for COVID-19 or came in contact with someone who tested positive.

Not all schools have reported widespread cases. Maryland announced no student-athlete tested positive during its initial screening of 105 players. Indiana reported zero positive tests. Missouri said out of 308 members of the athletic department, five tested positive for the coronavirus. Four of those cases were asymptomatic.

Though school leaders prepared for positive cases, creating quarantine protocols and certifying athletic trainers in contact tracing, the recent increases have concerned medical professionals and some athletic directors. The virus controls decisions, college officials have long said, and positive cases of the virus have gone up.

College athletics can’t hide from the virus. Whereas the NBA and other professional leagues can operate in a controlled environment, players must attend class. They can’t sequester themselves from the rest of the student body. Games, even with no crowds and only essential personnel, would require the transportation of hundreds of people across state lines.

As coronavirus cases rise throughout the nation, so does the probability of them spreading through athletic departments. Teams can frequently test their players and quarantine those who test positive, giving college football season “a chance,” Saag said, but unless coronavirus cases start to decrease, medical professionals believe large swaths of college campuses could be infected when students return in August.

Though student-athletes are more protected in athletic facilities, Saag said, which are often disinfected and require strict protocols, a high percentage of cases among the student body would increase the likelihood players get infected, disrupting a potential season.

In order to control the virus, and thus play college football, medical experts said people need to wear a mask, embrace social distancing, avoid large crowds and stay at home as much as possible. If cases decrease nationwide, the season has a better chance of starting on time.

Universities must create programs that protect faculty, staff and students, said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt and member of the NCAA coronavirus advisory panel. He said colleges have to educate all their students about the importance of wearing masks and social distancing — not just for the sake of athletics, but for their own health.

“We all need to go to this more conservative place because this virus is running rampant,” Saag said. “At some point, this could get so bad, it's as if we're on the Titanic hitting an iceberg and asking, in terms of college football, what time does shuffleboard start?”

If college football happens this fall, it will not look the same as in past seasons. Officials have discussed limiting the number of people on the sidelines. Athletic directors must decide how many fans can attend games. The NCAA coronavirus advisory panel this week discussed changing interactions between coaches and players on the sidelines. It doesn’t want coaches yelling at players’ faces. 

“How is that going to have to be altered?” Schaffner said. “The coach is not going to send them an email.” 

That's part of a larger pattern in which athletic directors, coaches and athletes figure out solutions to problems along the way.

Though coronavirus cases rapidly increased the past two weeks, college leaders have held onto hope of staging a season. 

“I certainly think that sitting here today, there will be football in the fall,” NCAA president Mark Emmert told The Athletic on Wednesday. “The situation is obviously very, very fluid. What we do know for sure is that whatever occurs, it’s going to be different.

“We’re not going to be able to have football in the same way that we’re accustomed to seeing it year in and year out. It’s all going to come down to whether or not it can be done in a safe fashion.”

Conference leaders and athletic directors, including LSU's Scott Woodward, have said they will make decisions related to the season in mid-to-late July. Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey said last week during a radio appearance that conferences “deserve” to see the results of required workouts, which begin July 13. They want to first gather as much information as possible.

Sankey said universities have to return to operation for schools to play football, one of the core principles of the NCAA’s Resocialization of Collegiate Sport. The guidelines also suggest “a downward trajectory of documented cases of COVID-19 within a 14-day period or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percentage of total tests within a 14-day period.” Regardless, medical experts said playing college football will require accepting some level of risk.

“We’re going to have to learn to live with COVID,” Sankey said on Rich Eisen's radio show. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to make rash or inappropriate decisions. We’re going to involve our medical leaders, those who work in infectious disease, to help guide us. That is what will inform the decision.”

When the coronavirus pandemic reached the United States in March, shutting down sports across the country, leaders in collegiate athletics had half a year until the beginning of football season. The timeframe has shrunk. Coronavirus cases have not.

Asked Friday during a radio appearance about the amount of time left to decide, Sankey said: “It’s narrowing.”


Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com