We are slowly getting more and more of an understanding of what needs to be done to carry college sports through a pandemic, but please emphasize the word “slowly.” Full understanding won’t immediately arrive.
By Matt Zemek
This is a fluid and evolving situation requiring a particular mix of advance planning but also public caution.
Conference commissioners, school presidents, and athletic directors need to be sorting through various plans and considerations, figuring out how to implement a number of different strategies based on what states and localities will allow them to do if SEC football or college football in general indeed happens this September. Figuring out those plans and making public statements are two different things, though. Making overly specific or far-reaching statements on what can happen three or four months from now isn’t especially helpful, since the situation will have changed so much by then.
Yes, there will be a time when decisions will need to be made and plans for handling fans (and security, and concessions, and testing, and temperature checks, and public sanitation, and all the other necessary considerations) will need to be announced. We are not there yet. What does a good response to this pandemic look like for college sports leaders, in the SEC or anywhere else? Some standards of responsiveness need to exist across the board, but others will vary depending on local situations, needs and risks. Sorting out the universal requirements from localized needs is a key task facing college sports leaders.
The main emphasis right now should be on getting the universal standards right. Localized standards can be put in place and refined as we get closer to the season.
Lots of news has broken recently in relation to how college sports must handle the more universal (read: mandatory, non-negotiable) elements of this pandemic. For one thing, there was a report that a member of the support staff for the Louisville football team tested positive for the coronavirus. That report was disputed by Louisville athletic director Vince Tyra, but Tyra did say that if any support staffer does contract COVID-19, the university has the protocols and resources in place to handle such an occurrence. All schools need to have those protocols — and the resources needed to enforce the protocols — in place. We should all be able to agree on that.
The University of Utah released a general outline of its procedures> if an athlete tests positive for COVID-19. Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said athletes who choose not to play this season in a pandemic won’t lose a year of eligibility. These are all good and necessary steps. All schools and conferences need to be able to arrive at this point of preparedness and this level of understanding toward athletes.
There are still more steps to take. If medical care for those testing positive is more than merely providing medication or a test, will those expenses be covered by the schools? None of the costs should be shouldered by the athletes or their families.
Let’s also look at the self-isolation policy. One thing South Korea has done to dramatically limit the amount of positive test cases and deaths is to have a “neutral” quarantine location, meaning that South Korean citizens — when testing positive — did not go back home to their families to quarantine. They were kept in a separate facility for the duration of their required quarantine period, a place other than their work building or their normal home dwelling. These “neutral” facilities limited the spread of the virus, whereas in New York, people who generally stayed home but had to make the occasional trip to the grocery store or pharmacy came down with more cases of the virus.
Setting aside “neutral” facilities — places where positive-testing athletes, coaches or support staff can truly self-isolate (not in the company or proximity of others) — is another thing college sports has to universally provide.
We could go through other items, but these are some of the highlights. College sports leaders — such as Gary Barta at Iowa — are beginning to realize that athletes and other team members/personnel need to be protected and given peace of mind. The SEC and the other conferences need to be taking steps toward providing assurance that college sports participants and staff will be kept safe.