As college football players have returned to campus for voluntary workouts this month, we’ve seen a parade of announcements from athletic departments about how many athletes have tested positive for COVID-19 during re-entry.
While some people would interpret the data as concerning when positive tests do pop up, the reality is that schools are making these announcements public because it shows that their screening procedures are working.
"It gives us a great baseline moving forward," said one athletics director who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic.
But the question of whether these testing disclosures will continue — including the frequency, the specificity and the implications for the season if players and staff are forced to miss games — is one that is yet to be fully addressed on a national or even conference level even though the implications this fall reach all the way from campus/public health information to sports gambling.
"I don’t believe universities will necessarily take the approach of doing a daily debrief or periodically updating their number of cases," said Tory Lindley, the president of the National Athletic Trainers Association and the head of the athletic training department at Northwestern.
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And it appears they won’t have to, as disclosure of injuries and illness is an issue the NCAA and conference offices have typically stayed away from any type of standardization.
But unlike the inconsistency from one school to another in announcing sprained ankles or hip flexors, COVID-19 is a new and sensitive issue. It’s also potentially a competitive issue.
Though the statistics suggest the vast majority of players will be asymptomatic or have mild symptoms, we don’t really know how easy or difficult it will be to contain an outbreak on a team once practice starts and players are in close contact to one another. Administrators are concerned that the most likely way it would spread is through a position group, so if a defensive lineman tests positive, would a significant number of players at that same position be in peril of not playing in the upcoming game that weekend?
And if so, is it unfair to opponents, fans and gamblers if one team announces every Wednesday that they have four positive tests and another has positive tests but doesn’t announce anything?
Meanwhile, schools will have to operate in this environment while adhering to the strict laws of medical privacy but also knowing that any player or coach who isn’t on the sideline or at practice is likely going to be presumed COVID-19 positive if there’s no other reason given for their absence. And given the potential stigma around this new virus and the contact tracing implications, is that fair for the public to presume a player has COVID-19 if they actually just have the flu?
"Some of it goes back to (programs’) common practices in the past of what they disclose and when they disclose it," Lindley said. "It goes back to availability and you may not know why, but you’ll know if someone is unavailable for participation and there will be variance from institution to institution of how much they share and how much is simply to protect the student-athlete for a lot of reasons. Maybe an undisclosed illness or issue or injury — or they're just listed as out and there’s no reason given."
Given all the issues athletic departments have been dealing with over the last few months, how they’ll deal with disclosure of positive tests once the season gets going has not been high on the list. On a Zoom call with reporters earlier this week, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly suggested he hadn’t even thought about it at all and passed the issue off to his sports information director.
Arkansas State athletics director Terry Mohajir, whose school was one of the first to announce that athletes had tested positive during their re-entry protocol (there were seven positives across all sports), said it’s possible they would continue announcing numbers of positive tests. He added, though, that he did not foresee many schools disclosing significant amounts of information aside from what’s required to the local health authorities and campus emergency management teams.
"I don’t ever foresee us as an institution specifically talking publicly about an individual that has tested positive for COVID," Mohajir said.
Another athletics director, who asked not to be identified publicly because the school’s policy had not been set in stone yet, said they’re considering just issuing a weekly report on number of positive tests for the sake of consistency and not to raise suspicions that they’re trying to hide numbers whether they’re good or bad.
That’s already been an issue at Alabama, for example, where the BamaInsider publication reported “as many as five” positive cases on the football team. The school later put out a statement that neither confirmed nor denied the report, citing privacy laws.
As individual conferences formulate their in-season policies for testing during game weeks, at least three identified by USA TODAY Sports are discussing some type of procedure where teams would inform each other before the game if players are unavailable due to COVID-19.
But there’s a clear downside to that: Once information gets exchanged, it’s almost certain to leak. It will also be rumor fuel, whether true or not.
Such information could even be weaponized in recruiting. Say, hypothetically, a player is planning a visit for a Saturday game against another school that’s recruiting him. If the visiting team learns that the home team has multiple positive cases, would that staff be above suggesting to the recruit that maybe it’s not a great weekend to be on that campus?
These are among the issues and unintended consequences of COVID-19 that college athletics has yet to reckon with as the countdown to the season begins in earnest. And yet, unless the NCAA steps in and provides some guidelines around how much information schools are supposed to release around positive tests, it’s likely to devolve into the wild, wild west.
Follow columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.