The Big 10’s decision to delay their football season from this fall till next spring has been debated widely in the press. Several conferences including the Big 12, the SEC, and the ACC disagreed with the Big 10 (along with the PAC 12, the MAC and the Ivy League) and felt that they were safe in playing football this fall.
It was unclear the exact criteria that the Big 10 used in making their decision, but the overlying comments focus on the safety of the players. I would like to raise a few issues specifically about the COVID-19 implications of the football season in the Big 10 for the players as compared to other students.
First the disclaimer: I am a long-time season ticket holder for Michigan football (and faculty member). I don’t speak for the University or anyone other than myself. I had no expectation of seeing a football game in person this fall. I felt the most likely scenario was going to be games played in empty stadiums much like what is happening in every professional sport at the present time. Therefore, the concept of 100,000 fans cheering football and potentially spreading coronavirus is not one that I will address and don’t believe will happen in other leagues.
Believe it nor not, in terms of COVID-19, the safest place for the student athletes would likely be in the football cocoon. If done correctly, keeping the players separate and monitoring them for infection involves far greater scrutiny than regular students will have. While there have been some comments about how regular students will be managed in the fall, unless they are going to 100% online classes and not living in dormitories, the communal aspects of college life present risk for infection for all students. This would actually be the greatest COVID-19 risk to the players and won’t go away if they are released from their athletic activities.
Michigan has isolated the football athletes and has effectively prevented them from becoming Covid-19 infected during their preseason camp. Michigan’s head football coach, Jim Harbaugh, points out the only positive COVID-19 tests for the Michigan players (11 out of 893 tests) were during their initial report to camp. There have been zero positive tests of the past 353, no positive tests for any coaches or staff, and no infections traced to Michigan’s football facilities. This is a record that most organizations and businesses would die for.
Harbaugh is proud of this record and wanted the season to play out. He said, “It is proven that the conduct, discipline and structure within our program have led to these stellar results. We respect the challenge that the virus has presented, however we will not cower from it.” He also quoted Theodore Roosevelt, saying he wants fall football “so that our place will not be among the cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
The concern raised is that some other programs haven’t been as compulsive as Michigan, and Michigan players eventually will be on the field with those players. Despite this, games are played outdoors, and while the linemen from the different teams will physically interact with each other, it is not clear how effective this would be in spreading COVID-19 infection, especially if all the team members were screened for virus before the game.
If this decision did anything definitive to prevent COVID-19 spread, it might be among regular students who would be congregating in bars or residence housing watching games. This may be mitigated by the creativity of our students, who will likely find other reasons to congregate, drink or otherwise hang out together and provide the potential for transmission.
Finally, one peve.
College football is a game with inherent physical risk. We must do a better job making students aware of these risks and providing equipment and safeguards to minimize these risks. The concept of spring football seems, however, to actually put students at greater risk.
Student athletes could be asked to play ten games in the spring and then another dozen just a couple of months later next fall. Some may have to go from college directly into NFL camps or face the decision to not play the college season at all.
If student safety is the reason fall football is delayed, it should be cancelled to make sure the students aren’t trading the remote risk of COVID-19 for the immediate risk of increased physical injuries.