Will UConn play football this year? Public health experts unsure about fall sports during coronavirus pandemic

Alex Putterman, Hartford Courant
·5 min read

Currently, UConn football players are on campus in Storrs. They have been tested for COVID-19. They have passed through a modified quarantine period during which they remained in small groups. They have completed strength and conditioning workouts. They have begun on-field activities.

But no one knows for sure whether they’ll actually get to play.

Amid a raging pandemic, public health experts both nationally and in Connecticut have raised eyebrows about the idea of college sports this fall. Some say the games will be safe as long as schools implement proper protocols. Others wonder whether sports, particularly on college campuses, are worth the risk.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic, and there is no way we can make the risk zero,” said Dr. Matthew Cartter, Connecticut’s state epidemiologist. “We have to ask ourselves as a society, are sports important that we’re willing to accept the risk that people involved in those sports might come down with COVID-19?”

As the fall season has crept closer and COVID-19 caseloads in many states have grown larger, the likelihood of anything resembling a normal sports schedule has seemed to diminish. Coaches and athletic directors across the country have begun to express doubt about the outlook for fall sports, while the Ivy League recently became the first or several conferences to officially postpone its fall seasons.

Last Thursday, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal called on other leagues to follow.

“The Ivy League has taken a principled stand that it’s going to put the well-being and health of athletes first,” Blumenthal told The Courant. “The bigger football schools, which are dependent on the revenues, may see themselves differently, but my point is, no matter how much a school is a football powerhouse, no matter how big the revenues involved, athletes should be put first.”

Athletic departments, including in Connecticut, have scrambled to assemble testing protocols and safety procedures. The lingering question: Will that be enough to save the fall season?

Football’s unique challenges

Some sports, of course, are more conducive to social distancing than others. Football, with its large rosters and constant physical contact, falls toward the bottom of that spectrum.

“Whether or not we can do football as a traditional season, I’m not sure,” said Dr. David Banach, a UConn Health epidemiologist who has consulted with athletic department staff. “I think there are a lot of additional factors that come into play, particularly how much COVID is in the community.”

In states such as Connecticut with relatively low rates of COVID-19 transmission, Banach said, football might be more manageable than in places where the disease continues to spread rapidly. Of course, that risk rises if in-state teams journey to hot-spot areas.

At UConn, athletic director David Benedict drew wide praise for a national football schedule assembled on short notice for the program’s first year as an independent. But amid the pandemic, that same schedule now presents complications. The Huskies had been slated to travel to five states, all plane trips away, several of which are currently experiencing COVID-19 surges.

UConn has already had to scrap a trip to Illinois (as well as a home game against Indiana) due to the Big 10 1/4 u2032s conference-only schedule and could have to rethink games at Virginia, North Carolina, Mississippi and San Jose State.

“All the travel does raise the level of concern,” Banach said. “Rates are going to be up and down over the next few months, and we have to be very thoughtful about travel between states.”

Karl Minges, chair of Health Administration and Policy at the University of New Haven, said he would recommend athletic directors look at transmission rates and protocols in areas their teams plan to travel to and reconsider trips to at-risk areas. A school like New Haven, whose football schedule mostly features teams from Northeastern states with low transmission and mask mandates, will have an easier time than UConn, which is slated to play across the country, he said.

“I do not envy those teams that have to travel inter-state,” Minges said. “That’s going to create a lot of issues.”

Protocols in place

As UConn has welcomed its football and basketball players back to campus over the past month, it has implemented a variety of safeguards to lessen the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak.

Players who arrived on campus were immediately tested, then directed to a modified quarantine, according to an athletic department press release. They were required to pass an exam conducted by team physicians and have since undergone regular temperature checks before entering team facilities. Locker rooms, strength and conditioning areas and athletic training rooms have been cleaned daily, the school says.

Though no UConn athlete has yet tested positive for COVID-19, Benedict said in a statement that he views an eventual positive test as inevitable. He said he is confident that the athletic department’s procedures “will mitigate any community spread.”

Banach said he has spoken to team physician Dr. Deena Casiero and visited the athletic facilities to meet with her and other staff.

“We have to be cautious,” Banach said. “UConn sports are beginning to phase in athletic activities with their student athletes in a very slow and calculated way with the ability to dial back if they need to, and that seems to be the best approach.”

UConn declined to make Casiero or any other athletic department staff available for an interview.

Whereas professional leagues, including the NBA and the WNBA, have created “bubbles” to keep players and coaches isolated from the general population, that isn’t practical on college campuses, where athletes live in dorms and attend classes.

“You’d be looking at a situation where everyone would be rooming together, everyone would be attending classes online instead of face-to-face like they’re currently planned for the fall,” Minges said. “And also, college kids are a little risk-[prone]. They might break that a little.”

Still, Minges said any safety measure is better than none.

“Working in small groups, working out in staggered schedules, working out in PPE or just cloth face masks is helpful,” he said. “When they get onto the playing field it kind of depends what sport it is.”

Alex Putterman can be reached at aputterman@courant.com.

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