As sports in the United States worked to lift themselves out of an unprecedented shutdown, leagues developed similar strategies — all focused on confining athletes to a set of facilities and keeping them away from anyone who could disrupt the season by spreading the novel coronavirus. So far, it’s working. The NBA has staged a months-long marathon of games at Disney World. Women’s soccer played in Utah. Hockey set up outposts in Canada. Games have run smoothly, and few players have contracted the virus.
College football longs for that same success and needs the season just as much to keep athletic departments financially afloat. But at the college level, players are, according to the NCAA, simply students. The association’s logic is that the same way some students help with economics research or study sociology, these students play football.
That long-standing philosophy turned into a hurdle in returning to play. But on some campuses where classes have shifted online and most students who live on campus have been sent home, athletes have stayed to prepare for their seasons. That’s the closest college football has come to creating a bubble, and the risk is still far greater than in the professional environments.
Football in major conferences kicks off this weekend, with ACC and Big 12 teams playing their season openers. Many of those universities have welcomed students back, and some already have had surges of cases on campus, where large social gatherings are inevitable. Four of the games previously scheduled for this week were postponed because of outbreaks that kept the teams from practicing.
“We’re all one big test away from having to make tough decisions,” Oklahoma Coach Lincoln Riley said at a news conference this week as his team prepares to face Missouri State. “That’s every team every single week.”
The return of the student body has worried officials for months. Football players began voluntary workouts in June, living on somewhat empty campuses. Coaches could strictly monitor their players’ behavior, and the athletes themselves are motivated to adhere to guidelines because they don’t want to risk losing their season. But a campus filled with regular students, who might be less inclined to exercise caution, heightens the risk. So football programs are now tasked with keeping their players guarded from the outside world, even though complete separation on college campuses remains impossible.
Early on, there were doubts about whether college football could play on without college campuses returning to normalcy. “If we’re not in college, we’re not having contests,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby told CBS Sports in April, when the sport was in the nascent stages of developing a plan for fall football.
“Our message was, we need to get universities and colleges back open,” Bowlsby said, referring to a call conference commissioners had with Vice President Pence, “that we were education-based programs and we weren’t going to have sports until we had something closer to normal college going on.”
Other university administrators shared that belief. The Big Ten and Pac-12 postponed fall sports last month, citing too much medical uncertainty. Most universities in those conferences are holding classes this fall with a hybrid model. Classes at the four Pac-12 schools in California are primarily online.
At the University of North Carolina, students returned in early August and classes began amid the crisis. A week later, the school shifted to all-remote instruction after clusters of coronavirus cases popped up around campus. The same day, North Carolina said its athletic programs planned to forge ahead with the ACC season. East Carolina University, a member of the American Athletic Conference, fell into a similar predicament soon after.
The college version of this quasi-bubble, which could spread to more campuses if they can’t contain the virus, doesn’t guarantee the program won’t deal with outbreaks. But it prompts less concern than having athletes mingle with other students in classrooms and crowded hallways all day. The schools might face an optical dilemma but keep their players a bit safer in exchange.
“They’re kind of separated in their bubble: They’re working out, they go to practice, they go to games,” said John Wolohan, a professor of sports law at Syracuse University. “I think they’re doing pretty much what they’ve done forever. The difference being all of a sudden we’re showing a light on it because we don’t have students there. And the question is, ‘Well, why are they there?’ ”
At East Carolina, which begins its football season Sept. 26, practices recently resumed after a pause because of a cluster of cases within the program. After a practice last week, when 23 players were still in quarantine, Coach Mike Houston explained the challenges of the upcoming season, which will test teams’ depth and ability to adjust.
“We’ve got a ballgame at the end of the month,” Houston said. “We got to practice today. This is what we do. I’m a football coach. They came here to play football. I get to be around these young people. It’s an exciting day.”
East Carolina players spend most of the day in a supervised study hall as they attend online classes. The football staff begins working with the players in the afternoon. After those meetings and practices, the players head home around 6 p.m., leaving the football facility where strict guidelines can be enforced.
“Are they completely avoiding the outside world? I hope that they’re being as cautious as we’re asking them to be when they leave us,” Houston said. “But they’re just like the rest of us. It’s kind of a personal decision as to how you handle yourself when you get away from the facility.”
With the majority of Division I conferences postponing fall sports, the NCAA canceled fall championship events. The AAC pushed soccer and women’s volleyball to the spring to align with other conferences, so those fall sports at East Carolina will wait to compete. But the conference’s football programs will play, along with five other leagues in the top-tier Football Bowl Subdivision.
When East Carolina shifted to online classes, on-campus dorms emptied. Only athletes, international students and others with hardships could stay. But much of the student body still resides in Greenville, N.C. The university cannot ask students to leave their off-campus apartments. At the University of North Carolina, only around 1,100 students still live on campus, but apartments remain occupied.
Colleen S. Kraft, the associate chief medical officer at Emory University Hospital, said, “There’s nothing that resembles [a bubble] on a college campus.” Instead, these schools are “trying to do risk mitigation in situations that they can control and enforce,” she said.
For football players, every class that moves online and each student who isn’t living in the college town brings some comfort. Kevin Wolfolk, the father of North Carolina defensive back Myles Wolfolk, said the university pivoting to remote instruction was a “relief.”
“Some of the older players like my son live off campus, so he’s got to really make sure wherever he goes outside he wears a mask,” Kevin Wolfolk said. “Now the town is empty, and he has to worry about that a little less.”
Coach Mack Brown told reporters that the adjustments at North Carolina “create a better seal around our program and a better bubble.”
Coaches and players have urged their campus communities to follow health guidelines. In some ways, their season depends on it. After students arrived last month, Alabama senior center Chris Owens tweeted a photo of a crowd and wrote: “How about we social distance and have more than a literal handful of people wear a mask? Is that too much to ask Tuscaloosa?”
Alabama, which is holding in-person classes, had nearly 1,900 new coronavirus cases in the past three weeks. Clemson and Pittsburgh, two ACC schools, are both relying on remote instruction for four weeks before some in-person classes begin, but that doesn’t keep students from returning to their apartments near campus.
Cases per capita have surged in the counties of some universities that plan to play football, including Georgia, Virginia Tech, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Florida State.
Georgia Coach Kirby Smart said in August: “We’ve told our guys that regardless of what student population does — and by all means, I want you to understand, we’re encouraging our student population to do everything the right way: space, social distance, wear a mask — but whether they do or not, that doesn’t control what you do as one of our players. You can make decisions to not go in the environments that are risky and wear a mask to protect yourself.”
Some schools have publicly shared data on the number of positive cases within their athletic departments, without identifying players, which is a useful tool to assess how well programs have managed to shield their players from transmission within their communities. But other programs have not done so. Even Oklahoma, which Riley said had “been probably the most transparent school in the country,” will no longer share the data, citing concerns about giving opponents a competitive advantage.
Kraft said surges in cases “tend to happen maybe about a month after there’s some sort of change in the society.” The incubation period of the virus causes a lag in identifying an outbreak, but Kraft said it also is delayed because people are more willing to follow strict guidelines for a couple of weeks before they relax. She noted how the spike in cases in the United States began about a month after Memorial Day. With students returning to most campuses in mid-August, more outbreaks could be forthcoming.
“I would love to be wrong, and I am more than happy to be wrong,” Kraft said, “but we are definitely headed for another wave.”
In a private meeting with SEC leaders and football players, some medical advisers noted the concern about students returning to campus, according to an audio recording obtained by The Washington Post. On the late-July call, a football player mentioned how classmates may have little incentive to adhere to guidelines and asked: “Why are they coming back if our plan is to have a season? … If the students are coming back, how can we isolate from them?”
An unidentified official responded: “You’re not going to like the answer. It’s one of those things where if students don’t come back to campus, then the chances of having a football season are almost zero. … If we’re not allowed to open up the university, they’re not going to allow us to open up the university just for football.”
The NCAA’s principle of amateurism, which prompted questions about whether in-person classes were a prerequisite for a football season, says that athletes’ participation in sports “should be motivated primarily by education and by the physical, mental and social benefits to be derived.” Their involvement with athletics is “an avocation,” the NCAA’s Division I manual says.
Amateurism is the association’s “bedrock principle,” said Gerald Gurney, a longtime administrator in Power Five athletic departments who now teaches courses related to college sports at the University of Oklahoma. It’s critical to the NCAA’s model because it keeps athletes from being considered employees.
Keeping athletes on campus during the pandemic while sending other students home signals that athletes fall into a separate category. “We’re making them different,” said Wolohan, the sports law professor, adding that he thinks this scenario could be used in an argument against the NCAA when trying to determine whether athletes should be considered employees.
After the NCAA canceled fall championships, NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a video that perhaps using “predetermined sites” with “bubbles or semi-bubble models” could be a path that allows these athletes to eventually compete.
It has become a logical solution — for athletes who want to compete, for parents wanting their football-playing children to feel safer and for institutions that need to bring in money to pay salaries and keep their athletic departments afloat. The cost comes by way of the optics.
“What is happening now with this separation in this bubble … is a primary example of their treatment as a professional rather than as an amateur,” Gurney said. “This is all about the money.”
Robert Klemko contributed to this report.
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