Returning to college sports comes with inherent risks while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread in the United States.
That’s a fact that Dr. Chris Kratochvil and the Big Ten Conference’s task force for emerging infectious disease keep in mind as they make recommendations to institutions regarding the safest way to return to practice and competition.
Kratochvil — the task force’s chairman, associate vice chancellor for clinical research and professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Nebraska, and executive director of the Global Center for Health Security — said he believes the Big Ten’s proactive approach has helped contain the virus on campuses to this point.
“I think that many of the Big Ten universities really did get moving early on in setting up some of those resources,” Kratochvil said Wednesday. “I think the synergy of the Big Ten working together and sharing information, sharing best practices really has helped get a jump-start on implementing some of these policies and procedures.”
For the University of Wisconsin football team and their Big Ten counterparts, the outlook of returning to practice and games is a bit better than others because announced numbers of positive COVID-19 cases in the conference are relatively low. The conference also announced Thursday that if fall sports are to happen, Big Ten schools will only play one another — in part to cut costs but also to have flexibility to adjust to the fluid nature of the times.
The exact number of positive tests on Big Ten football teams has yet to be reported because most schools, including UW, are announcing results from all tests administered in their athletic department and not from specific teams. The Badgers had two positive cases in the first 117 football and volleyball student-athletes tested when voluntary workouts started in June, and announced Wednesday that seven of the 171 athletes tested over the past month have tested positive. UW has conducted a total of 428 tests, which include members of the football, volleyball, women’s basketball, men’s hockey and women’s hockey teams.
UW has been testing its athletes with PCR nasal swabs, which Kratochvil called “the gold standard” test for the novel coronavirus. However, as cases rise around the country, the availability of those tests may change. Kratochvil said the task force is sharing information with campuses in the next week or two regarding new testing resources.
“Certainly it would be great to have frequent PCR testing, for example, of everyone involved, but how does that play out with availability of supplies and reagents and things?” Kratochvil said. “And certainly, as we’ve seen the outbreak continue to expand recently nationally, that’s also taxing a lot of those supplies needed for testing. Certainly the focus is supplying healthcare institutions and things like that now, and as those supplies get more scarce, trying to figure out how can that help (from the task force) be allocated to support athletics in the most appropriate way.”
As the start of an extended training camp for college football nears, a number of decisions made this week show the difficulty of having a season.
Ohio State shut down its voluntary workouts for football and other sports Wednesday due to the virus, but did not announce case statistics. Stanford cut 11 varsity sports programs due to budget shortfalls caused by canceled tournaments and a lack of ticket sales. The Ivy League postponed all sports, including the top two revenue drivers of football and basketball, until at least Jan. 1, with the thought being that more time to find a vaccine or get the virus under better control will make playing safer.
Kratochvil said a spring semester season doesn’t necessarily mean the environment will be safer for competition.
“It’s a really difficult question … we don’t know where we’re going to be in the spring, either,” he said.
“I think what we’re really focusing is what do we know today? What can we do to best protect the student-athletes today and prepare them for when competitions do resume? And I think there’s going to be a lot of conversations that are going to happen before those decisions are ultimately made and I think our group will help weigh in on considerations and, you know, discussions of where things are at currently and what trajectory we’re on. But it’s certainly difficult to estimate where things will be in six months, where they’ll be in one month from now.”
Illinois linebacker Milo Eifler expressed concerns last week with playing the season given the circumstances. One of his apprehensions centered on travel, an area Kratochvil said the task force has been looking into. Some solutions may be to take buses when possible to limit exposure in airports, or to fly in and out of road cities the day of the game when possible to avoid a hotel stay.
Kratochvil said there is no way to eliminate exposure risks during travel, but the task force is committed to making recommendations that can mitigate them.
“Each decision that’s made along the way of getting to that game time and beyond are going to have to weigh all those factors. That’s why it’s so difficult to have clear, distinct decisions and clear, distinct recommendations across the board, and instead we often coach using considerations of things that apply to your unique situation,” he said.
The task force is continuing to gather information from the CDC and professional sports leagues who have resumed play across the world. Major League Baseball and the NBA are slated to return later this month, with the latter attempting to isolate its league in Orlando, Florida, to finish the season.
Kratochvil said this method — colloquially called a “bubble” — has merit, but doesn’t lend itself to the college setting.
“I think part of that student experience is the interaction and the social life on the campus and just attending classes,” he said. “It’s much more difficult to set something like that up, which means it’s all the more important to have good education and really stressing the importance of all those good nonpharmaceutical interventions, like social distancing, hand washing and masking.”