College football on the brink: Push to play undercut by virus outbreaks

Juan Perez Jr.

Colleges are racing toward a fall sports season unlike any other, as they work to keep the coronavirus from infecting student athletes and staff who bring in billions of dollars and entertain a nation.

So far, it’s not going well.

Clemson University’s athletics department disclosed 28 positive coronavirus tests among student athletes and staff on Friday, one day after the South Carolina state epidemiologist warned residents to wear masks in public and stay physically distanced from others. A group of Texas football players tested positive, as a stubborn number of cases persists in the state. Kansas State University suspended its ongoing football workouts for two weeks, after revealing 14 of about 130 student-athletes tested positive. “Make no mistake, we are not out of the woods yet,” Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly said last week.

Across the country, college athletic programs are under financial and political pressure to return to the fields, but these efforts come amid safety warnings from public health officials and continued uncertainty about how the academic side of colleges will get back to business this fall. President Donald Trump may want to refill arenas to give Americans a sense of life returning to normal with sporting pastimes, but each positive test in an athletic clubhouse is a major setback.

“The decision should not be an economic decision,” said Amy Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission college sports reform group, of the potential to restart competition this fall. “Leaders should not rush to a return just to meet a date on the traditional (sports) schedule.”

Three months after Covid-19 halted March Madness basketball tournaments, college leaders are wading through evolving information about the disease and its ability to spread through contact sports. They’re also asking Congress for protection from legal liability.

But as states reopen, lockdowns lift and infections smolder in some states, the prospect of a virus-tinged sports season underscores broader tensions between safety and money. Health experts are urging administrators to craft intricate campus safety plans, while college towns rely on the economic activity generated by fall Saturdays. How colleges proceed will send a message about the influence of athletics — and the cash produced by big-time programs — in higher education.

NCAA and college football playoff officials huddled with the Trump administration and professional leagues in April to discuss Covid-19 testing and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Last week, a panel of the athletic overseer’s authorities allowed Division I schools to start required football activities in mid-July in preparation for scheduled Labor Day weekend kickoffs.

Top-tier fall college championships can run on their usual formats, timelines and locations. Division II schools are also holding to their plans, at least for now.

Yet there are still no hard rules on what happens to a player who tests positive during the season, or the rest of the team. How to travel safely is another problem. The CDC has urged higher education institutions to limit activities involving “external groups or organizations," especially those that include people from outside communities.

College athletes are unpaid and non-unionized students who live in close contact with their peers, though they are often portrayed like professional stars. Black students accounted for just 10 percent of the student body at Division I schools in 2019, according to NCAA statistics, but Black athletes occupied nearly half the ranks of those top-grossing schools’ football teams.

At big-time sports programs, those same youths generate an outsized chunk of business income through television broadcasts, ticket sales and sports bar tabs.

Public school sports programs in the NCAA’s highest-profile Football Bowl Subdivision generated roughly $8.8 billion in revenue in 2018. A lucrative cash flow combination delivered more than half of those dollars. That includes media rights deals, ticket sales, revenue-sharing agreements with athletic conferences and the NCAA, plus postseason football games and sponsorships.

The money helps pay for some of the biggest-ticket expenses associated with college sports. According to aggregate data maintained by the Knight Commission, public Football Bowl Subdivision schools spent $5 billion — nearly 60 percent of their total expenses in 2018 — on salaries and benefits for coaches and staff, in addition to overhead costs such as debt service on athletics facilities projects and equipment.

Less income means less money to pay salaries or service debt. Other teams must brace for hits to crucial support that in the past came from college budgets now reeling from pandemic-spurred losses.

Stamping out potential campus outbreaks hinges on testing for Covid-19, plus isolating the infected and tracing their contacts. Yet some athletic conferences and schools are still building clear, consistent and definitive standards to test athletes for the disease in the coming weeks and months.

Others have uneven plans for how they’ll acquire tests, which kind they will administer and when — or how much they will cost.

“Everybody has major questions. We may do a lot of testing and have major outbreaks, we may do very little testing and have no outbreaks,” said Carlos Del Rio, the executive associate dean of the Emory School of Medicine and a member of an NCAA coronavirus advisory committee.

Recent NCAA guidance doesn’t offer schools specific answers to those difficult questions.

“University athletic departments can put together safe venues — they’re used to reducing infections in locker rooms,” said Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), a former university administrator, during a recent panel discussion.

“Here’s the problem: You’re dealing with a bunch of young people that are going to socialize. So while you can control training, locker rooms, [and] playing venues, what you can’t control is the rest of what it means to be young in America. That’s the challenge. That’s why testing, particularly quick testing, is going to be extremely important.”

That has created some tough decisions. Arizona State’s president says his teams might only compete with schools inside the Pac-12 Conference in the western United States this year.

“I don’t know if we’ll be playing teams from other conferences or not, but I think we can make the conference work. That’s basically what we’re headed towards,” ASU President Michael Crow told POLITICO. “I’d say that it’s becoming increasingly likely, and we’re putting all of our energy into making that happen.”

Some schools simply may not play at all.

“One possibility is that at some point in time, people may say this is not safe no matter what we do, we can never make it safe enough, and therefore we shouldn’t have sports,” del Rio said.

“I think schools, parents, and athletes are going to have to decide, ‘Is this a risk I can take?’”

Three University of Central Florida football players tested positive for Covid-19 upon returning to the Orlando campus for workouts earlier this month. Student athletes and an employee tested positive at Marshall University, while other athlete infections were reported at Alabama, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Louisiana State, Mississippi, Texas Tech and other schools.

“I think what you try to do is try to minimize the risk as much as you can,” del Rio said. “But obviously it’s going to be impossible to say (there’s) zero risk.”

One problem is getting testing for everyone on campus who needs it.

For example, if all of Connecticut’s colleges and boarding schools reopen in the fall, higher education officials have estimated the state needs to provide 200,000 to 300,000 Covid-19 tests by early September — plus more for the remaining fall semester. A report from Mississippi’s public university system says schools need to ask the state’s health department “to provide massive testing and contact tracing capabilities.”

The American College Health Association says repeated testing is needed to assure a population “remains clear of disease,” but cautions mass testing programs require immense resources and close coordination with health officials to avoid overwhelming labs or health care workers.

Testing all members of a sports team before a tournament could be feasible, the association said early this month, but argued testing even for both Covid-19 infections and immunity "cannot provide a comprehensive picture of the safety of the student athlete 'herd.'"

“The question of COVID-19 testing of intercollegiate athletes or other at-risk groups has not yet been settled and is controversial,” the college health association said. “There will also be questions about the need for repeated testing and how often.”

Among schools, plans are in flux.

The University System of Georgia is reviewing coronavirus response plans from its individual schools but is still weighing critical details on how campus testing will work.

Interim guidelines from the Pac-12 Conference call for testing athletes before they return to campus, but a spokesperson said officials are still discussing critical details including testing frequency.

Ohio State says its athletes must get tested before they return to voluntary workouts this month, yet the school didn’t specify estimates on how many tests will be needed as practices and competitions resume. Plans from the University of Kansas and Texas Tech call for athletes to get a diagnostic and antibody test before starting workouts, while Oklahoma State has said repeat testing will depend on guidance from medical professionals, the Big 12 Conference and the NCAA.

To get more answers, del Rio said experts will need to know more about how the virus behaves in the coming two months.

“I think the risk for athletes is probably going to be very small because they're young and they're going to do fine,” del Rio said.

“But I worry about coaches, I worry about the other people that are with the athletes, who are not necessarily young and who are not necessarily in good health,” he said. “And that may be a problem.”