All across America, the vision of sports returning has been explicitly tied to the notion that players and coaches would be protected by robust COVID-19 testing to identify and isolate positive cases before they become outbreaks.
For pro athletes, in fact, frequent testing is one of the few non-negotiable areas. Without testing, you won’t have pro sports.
But at the college level, Friday’s announcement by the Southeastern Conference that so-called “voluntary” workouts (let’s be real, there’s no such thing) can resume on campus as early as June 8 came with a pretty significant hint about how college football programs are not going to meet the testing standards being established by pro sports leagues.
According to the SEC and subsequent releases by multiple schools, players and staff members will be tested when they come back to campus to make sure they don’t have COVID-19 before they begin workouts. After that, though, there’s no mandate to test anyone unless they’re exhibiting symptoms. Rather, the typical procedure as outlined in a release from Florida will be sanitation, daily temperature checks and a questionnaire.
Is that really good enough to make sure college athletics facilities don’t become COVID-19 hotspots themselves? Who knows. But it sure seems like a heck of a risky bet.
“In football, two or three hours of linemen being in close proximity, piles of bodies, it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to really mitigate risk in that scenario,” said Thomas Russo, professor and chief of the infectious disease department at University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine. “So what I think we’d really need to do is point-of-care testing for whenever these athletes get together. They’re tested that day and if they’re positive they can’t participate and they’re sent home. I think that's the only way we can really minimize risk.”
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The bottom line, though, is that the college athletics community is all over the map right now on testing — with many athletic departments deeply concerned about the cost, efficacy and practicality of regularly testing 125-plus players and personnel just for football. With the cost of tests ranging from $50 to $100 a pop, any excuse not to add $50,000 a week to the budget in testing is one that administrators are more than willing to hear.
In an interview Thursday on the "Paul Finebaum Show," Missouri athletics director Jim Sterk said that his school’s medical personnel had advised that “the best way to handle this” was not through frequent testing but rather temperature checks and sanitation and that you only test “If there are symptoms.”
Sorry, but that simply flies in the face of pretty much everything we’ve heard for more than two months about COVID-19 and the fact that people can be infected and transmit the coronavirus for several days before they exhibit symptoms.
But with the NCAA opting not to establish any national standard for testing and university officials desperate for a predicate to open their campuses to students, the wiggle room on testing is as big as the Grand Canyon. And they’re giving themselves that leeway because, gosh darnit, they’re in it for the kids.
This is the argument college administrators have talked themselves into: The environment that will be created at athletics facilities is cleaner and safer than what the players will be able to get at home. It’s a variation on an old theme for college sports, one that casts the NCAA and these noble universities as the benevolent protector of young men and women, not a multi-billion dollar enterprise that needs them to keep the money machine moving, even if a corner has to be cut here or there.
And athletic departments are going to get away with cutting those corners on testing because the larger universities are going to do it, too. When colleges open their doors, they may be able to test students as they re-enter campus, but doing it on any kind of regular basis is likely going to be impractical because with campus communities it would have to be scaled to tens of thousands. That’s perfectly understandable.
But sports, by their very nature, are not the same. If someone goes to class with COVID-19, it’s not a guarantee they’ll spread it if certain precautions are taken. If a player goes to a workout or football practice with COVID-19, however, it would be hard to envision how they won’t infect others — and perhaps a bunch of others.
“Even if you’re destined to have symptoms, there could be up to six days prior to developing symptoms where you could be in that infectious phase so you can’t just use things like temperature and questions, 'Any close contact? Feel great? Good to go,' ” Russo said. “I think we really need to be rigorous about this as far as day-of-event testing, which you'd want a similar sort of thing for practice situations.”
Not having a national mandate for frequent testing as athletes return also presents a whole slew of other issues. Are we really counting on football players, who almost universally would play through injuries or illness if they’re physically able, to be forthcoming about symptoms?
And what about the season? Though schools are expected to test more for game weeks — Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby mentioned earlier this week that they’re expecting easier, faster, more abundant tests to come online by the fall — it’s worth wondering whether schools are going to really want abundant testing.
After all, say it’s Auburn-Georgia week — big rivalry game — and a couple players start to experience symptoms on a Thursday after practice. But by testing everyone on the team Friday, you’re going to risk coming up with a bunch of positive tests and potentially having to forfeit the game. At that point, is your institutional incentive to test more or less?
You’d hope it’s the former. But until college administrators commit to rigorous, frequent testing of college athletes — no matter the cost or consequences — we’re going to be left to wonder whose interests they really have in mind.