The northern end and scoreboard of Sanford Stadium pokes through the trees of Sanford Drive on Saturday, April 18, 2020, on the University of Georgia's campus in Athens, Georgia. The annual G-Day football scrimmage was canceled this year due to complications arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo/Julian Alexander, jalexander@randb.com)

Oh, how far we’ve come since March. Back then, when COVID-19 seemed more like a boogeyman than the terrifyingly real monster it turned out to be, one positive test in the NBA shut down the world of sports for four months. Now, after COVID-19 has taken nearly 153,000 American lives according to the CDC, and dozens of college football players have tested positive, we’re up in arms about canceled rivalry games. 

Whether schedules are conference-only or conference-only-plus-one, there’s no gridiron bubble. Players, coaches, and attending staff will still travel throughout the country. They will still interact with people outside their teams. And no matter how stringent the individual safety protocols, there’s no 100% effective means to corral college-aged kids and make them look at the bigger picture. 

Come Sept. 26, the SEC has the incredibly tall order of not only keeping their players safe, but also preventing a serious contribution to our collective failure at the once trumpeted and now seemingly forgotten effort to get a grip on this pandemic.

COVID-19 bubbles work

The National Women’s Soccer League returned to the pitch on June 27 and successfully completed a month of play, crowning the Houston Dash champion of its Challenge Cup on July 26.

Throughout the tournament, players lived in remote Herriman, Utah, and followed detailed safety protocols outlined by the league. Along with strict mask usage and social distancing except when competing or training, players weren’t allowed to leave their housing areas. They couldn’t receive visitors. They couldn’t have contact with opposing teams or anyone outside of the league village. Every day, teams submitted a checklist to NWSL staff to make sure they adhered to the guidelines, and they faced sanctions if they didn’t. 

And even before the Challenge Cup began, the NWSL showed its commitment to safety. On June 22, the Orlando Pride made the difficult, but obvious choice to abstain from play following positive COVID-19 tests among players and staff. The decision wasn’t only for their players, either, but “to protect the health of all involved in the Challenge Cup,” Pride Executive Vice President Amanda Duffy said.

All of these pragmatic decisions brought sports back to the U.S. CBS Sports reported that the NWSL completed over 2,000 COVID-19 tests during the Challenge Cup without a single positive result. And it never would have happened without both strong leadership by the league and team-level responsibility.

Although the NWSL benefitted from a small, eight-team contingent in Utah, the NBA and NHL’s larger competition bubbles have been similarly effective so far. On July 29, the NBA announced zero positive results among 346 players tested in the previous 16 days. ESPN reported on July 27 that the NHL administered over 4,000 tests in one week. All were negative. 

Then, there’s the MLB.

Who’s out first?

No bubble. No league-wide quarantine protocols. No problem, right? The question answers itself. After its first three-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies from July 24-26, the Miami Marlins’ next 10 games were postponed. If Miami doesn’t make up those outings, there goes one-sixth of its 60-game season. Oops.

So, what happened? On July 31, Scott Miller of Bleacher Report tweeted that the MLB found the Marlins were “very lapse” in their compliance with protocols around leaving hotel rooms while competing in preseason games against the Braves in Atlanta. Yet as CBS Sports reported, the MLB did not prescribe penalties for extracurricular activities. Instead, it expected players to take the best interest of the league to heart when deciding whether to hit the hotel bar or local clubs. 

Unfortunately for the MLB, the Marlins weren’t as forward thinking as the Orlando Pride were 40 days ago. Now that 29 positive tests have cropped up among MLB players and staff, and league commissioner Rob Manfred reportedly said the nascent 2020 season could be on the brink of shutting down, the non-bubble, fingers-crossed approach seems glaringly inadequate. 

Football at what cost?

While there was never the possibility of confining college football athletes to an NWSL or NBA-style bubble, it will be difficult for the SEC to conduct 10 uninterrupted games this fall.

The week-long break between games is definitely helpful, but if a player tests positive a day or two after a game, not only will they almost certainly miss the next contest, but both teams will be operationally paralyzed for a day or two — or at least should be — to conduct contact tracing and multiple rounds of testing. 

This risk of mid-week stand-stills is only heightened by the potential for off-field activities. Who’s stopping players from taking the Marlins route and going out on their own time? LSU already proved what will happen then. Even if conferences sanction teams for breaking protocols, who knows if coach-to-player and player-to-player supervision will suffice to control behavior. 

Only daily testing could prevent an asymptomatic player from spreading COVID-19 to classmates, teammates or fellow bar patrons. While that would be a wise route for college teams, it calls into question the ethicality of universities providing those resources for student athletes and not their full student bodies. 

Should outbreaks occur, the question will then become whether conferences cancel teams’ subsequent games or allow them to carry on and risk staggered exposure and complicated quarantine logistics. The whole idea behind the Big Ten and SEC’s conference-only schedules is to provide flexibility and the freedom to postpone or cancel competition at will. And with only two open dates in SEC schedules this fall, including the week before the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 19, rescheduling isn’t really an option. 

It’s a brave new world for college football. And if stopping the spread of this pandemic requires cancellations, so be it. It’s not just for players’ sake, but for the sake of the communities anticipating their return with bated breath.

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