NFL and college football seasons in jeopardy with rising COVID rates

The college football season has never felt so fragile. The NFL season has never been so imperiled. Yet both entities plow ahead, proclaiming continued confidence in the protocols and safeguards they have in place.

We are nearing an inflection point that was inevitable from the moment that football forged ahead, in the face of a pandemic that is ruthless and non-discriminatory. Lacking the bubble that worked so well in the WNBA, NBA and NHL but was determined to be logistically unfeasible in football, the disruptions were always going to come. It was just a matter of when.

“Those of us in public health are not surprised by this outcome, based on the plan they’re putting in place,” Dr K.C. Rondello, Clinical Associate Professor, Public Health and Emergency Management at Adelphi University, told Newsday of the NFL’s outbreaks.

“There are just too many unknowns. It was difficult enough to control the NBA when they had the bubble. Now imagine you have even less control than that.”

“When” is now, at a time when COVID-19 cases are spiking again throughout the nation. This week was a sobering one in college football, particularly the SEC, which embraces the slogan, “It just means more”.

Vanderbilt determined it would not have enough players to safely play at Missouri after COVID-19 limited them to 56 scholarship players in a 41-7 loss to South Carolina the previous week.

Florida had to pause all football operations after 21 players tested positive for COVID-19 – days after the Gator coach, Dan Mullen, urged his school to “pack The Swamp” for the now-postponed LSU game. The Swamp is the nickname of Florida’s Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, with a capacity of 90,000.

Florida coach Dan Mullen has tested positive for COVID-19.Credit:AP

Yes, such lunacy is reflective of a lack of respect for the scourge of COVID-19 that needs to be hammered out of existence. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey sent a memo to coaches and athletic directors last week warning that the season could be derailed without strict adherence to virus protocols.

That echoed the memo that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent to teams, in the wake of the Tennessee Titans outbreak, threatening severe punishment – including fines, loss of draft picks and even forfeiture of games – if protocols were broken. The league is investigating whether the Titans did so by holding unauthorised workouts after their facility was shut down.

This is not to say college football and the NFL won’t find a way through all the COVID-19 disruptions. Certainly, they’re not turning back now, barring a surge of massive multi-team outbreaks, or some sort of catastrophic health outcome. They have too much invested, and too much at stake financially. And too many people who really, really want to watch football.

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Let’s hope the participants learn something from Major League Baseball, which seemed on the verge of shutting down after the St Louis Cardinals and especially the Miami Marlins were riddled with COVID-19 cases. The Marlins, with 18 players and two coaches testing positive, mirrors the Titans, who had more than 20 cases to cause the postponement of one game and the shifting of another.

In baseball’s case, it seemed to serve as a wake-up call for everyone to buckle down and take the precautions more seriously. MLB announced last week they had gone 47 consecutive days with no new positive COVID-19 tests. The World Series will start Wednesday (AEDT).

Of course, baseball is not football. The game itself is more intrusive (though, encouragingly, it doesn’t appear that transmissions have occurred on the field of play), and the number of people involved is much larger.

I think it’s fair to consider if the Pac-12 and Big Ten, the college athletic conferences so roundly criticised and even ridiculed for remaining shuttered when others sprang back into action, will be vindicated for their cautious approach. They waited until daily, conference-wide rapid testing was available, which should help mitigate breakouts.

The key word is “should.” Anyone who presumes to have COVID-19 conquered is setting themselves up for a rude awakening. We’ve had a lot of those lately in the football world. It’s a pervasive backdrop of anxiety that’s we’re going to have to accept as part of the world of college and pro football in 2020.

The Seattle Times

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