For the first time since World War II, the biggest question for college football teams isn’t how many games they will win or lose. It’s how many of their players and coaches will make it through the season safe and sound.
The coronavirus pandemic has upended or sidelined every facet of American society, which has made college football fans all the more hungry to see some sense of normalcy return this fall. That hunger has motivated college campuses to reopen their facilities starting June 1 to football players.
Given the number of Americans infected is officially 2.4 million, but estimated to be 10 times larger than that, it’s inevitable almost every athletic program will have cases. So far, 23 programs — including the University of Arkansas — out of 130 FBS programs have reported confirmed positive tests during the “voluntary” workout period of June and early July, according to the New York Times. (Some public schools, including Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and South Carolina, have refused to release testing data.)
Arkansas’ single official case so far (though reporter Otis Kirk has reported five in total) looks good compared to what’s been happening elsewhere lately. Consider the following numbers for positive COVID-19 confirmations:
*23 Clemson student-athletes (21 are football players)
*14 Kansas State student-athletes
*13 Texas student-athletes
*11 Florida student-athletes
*8 Baylor student-athletes
*7 Arkansas State student-athletes
*6 Houston student-athletes
*5 SMU student-athletes
Then there’s LSU, which last week confirmed at least of its 30 football players are in quarantine because of testing positive.
LSU is one of only three programs, along with Arkansas and Kentucky, doing something very wrong when it comes to its testing procedures, according to infectious disease experts. Currently, there are two types of tests — diagnostic, to confirm someone currently has COVID-19, and antibody, to confirm previous infection.
Neither type of test is anywhere near 100% accurate, but experts generally agree it’s better to administer both of them to student-athletes as they return to campus rather than just one or the other. Many schools, indeed, do administer both tests — even though it’s more expensive to do so.
Arkansas, LSU and Kentucky, however, require only the antibody test for returning student-athletes. They only require coronavirus diagnostic tests for any players if they develop symptoms or are found to have been in contact with someone infected.
But antibody tests, even if they show up positive, don’t necessarily mean that a player is immune. “You can’t assume that having had the disease before protects you,” said Dr. George Rutherford, professor of epidemiology and director of Public Health at University of California-San Francisco. “Just because you have it doesn’t mean you’re protected. Having said that, we don’t have lots of evidence or even really case reports of people being reinfected.”
Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University, believes solely relying on antibody tests is a terrible idea. In a recent Washington Post article, he points to the unknowns around how well antibody tests work, and whether immunity results, while emphasizing that diagnostic tests have proven to identify asymptomatic infected individuals, even if they miss up to 30 percent of active infections.
In response, LSU’s senior associate athletic director of health and wellness said the school’s medical team understands policies are in flux and could change. But, for now, they think tests for active infections were “too unreliable” and “advised the best overall policy to prevent outbreaks was to screen players daily for symptoms, then test any symptomatic players and potentially those in contact with symptomatic players.”
Arkansas officials are following the same line of thinking.
“That’s complete nonsense,” Binney said. “It’s not foolproof … but we know that you will miss a lot of cases if you wait for symptoms to develop. We’re seeing example after example where waiting for symptoms to develop leads to widespread outbreaks.”
One reason for the recent surge among young adults in states like Texas and Arkansas is that there is no way to enforce social distancing at bars and restaurants. College students can’t be forced to live in a bubble. They will get together and mingle.
Perhaps Razorback student-athletes will learn lessons from LSU and lay off going to Dickson Street too much. If they do, the spread of coronavirus will be curtailed by Fayetteville Mask Ordinance 6323, which was passed in mid June.
It, in part, mandates:
-Individual members of the public who refuse to wear a mask when required will be denied entry to places of accommodation. The denial of entry will be enforced by the business.
-If an individual refuses to wear a mask and does not comply with the denial of entry, businesses may call the business support hotline for assistance, or they may call 911 if the situation is an emergency.
Still, without more testing in place, the Arkansas Razorback football team seems primed for a breakout at some point in the coming weeks before more regulated, supervised coaching will begin. Yes, the diagnostic test can cost about $100-$200 per player, which is a lot of money when needing to be done for 120 players once or twice a week. But a program as rich as the Razorbacks can afford the extra precaution.
Plus, the athletic program’s insurance may cover the cost, Derita Ratcliffe, deputy athletics director at Arkansas who oversees the Razorbacks’ reopening, told Sports Illustrated. “There is thought right now that those things are going to be covered (by insurance),” she said, “but we don’t have past data that that is the case.”
Some schools, like Missouri and Houston, were like Arkansas in planning to only give diagnostic tests to symptomatic players. But they’ve seen the light. Arkansas should, too.
The programs which don’t mandate diagnostic tests for athletes returning to campus are opening themselves up to “gross negligence,” a former NFL agent turned law professor told Sports Illustrated. In early June, “many doctors claimed that initial testing should be a requirement and that schools choosing not to initially test every athlete are taking a giant risk. Since then, at least two schools that planned to only test symptomatic athletes, Missouri and Houston, have altered course. Both schools are now testing all athletes.”
As Illinois law professor Michael Leroy put it to SI: “All it takes is one fatality for people to say, ‘How could a school do this?!’”
Wait — isn’t a breakout now better than it happening during the season?
At first blush, the thought is enticing.
Since these 18 to 22 year old Division I athletes are so healthy, most of them will recover from COVID-19 within a few weeks should they get it. If getting it once means immunity, do teams like Clemson and LSU have an advantage going forward — since they already have many players who won’t get sidelined from future coronavirus outbreaks?
The general belief with COVID-19 is that it would take a group 70% immunity to develop “herd immunity.” On a team of 120 players, that seems doable with a few rowdy movie theater nights and reopenings of Chad Morris’ ill-conceived “Club Dub.”
The virus would spread quickly, like in those chickenpox parties from decades ago. But not so fast, says Michael Saag, a professor of medicine and the director of UAB’s Center for AIDS Research:
“We knew what chickenpox’s natural history was and we were pretty confident based on evidence, once you had it, you don’t get it again.”
“And we knew then and now getting chickenpox as a child is a whole lot better than getting chickenpox as a young adult or older adult because that’s when the pneumonia happens and they can die. It was all based on decades of experience; we have five months of experience with this virus.”
So will the coronavirus cancel college sports altogether? Watch this for more: