College football’s next big challenge: The return of students to campus

For avid college football fans, the images and testimonials hitting the social media circles were nearly impossible to miss.

Dozens of mostly maskless fans lined up in close proximity Sunday on “The Strip” in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

There was a similar scene Saturday night in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

College football players pleaded with classmates and other members of the general public to do better.

“How about we social distance and have more than a literal handful of people wear a mask?” Alabama senior offensive lineman Chris Owens tweeted. “Is that too much to ask Tuscaloosa?”

Said Auburn receiver Anthony Schwartz, after noting how rare masks were on campus, even in crowds: “Our coaches and medical staff have been doing their absolute best to keep us safe; I don’t want them to be blamed for whatever happens going forward.”

Welcome to college football’s next big challenge: the return of the student body to campuses nationwide.

“I think that’s the concern of every single college football coach in the country right now,” Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley said. “How’s that managed, because the numbers game becomes much more difficult, any way you slice it, when the students all get back on campus.”

As the coronavirus pandemic has raged nationally, college football programs have done their best to minimize spread on their rosters. Most conferences — including the Big Ten and the Pac-12 — have already postponed their fall seasons, but six FBS conferences, including the ACC, Big 12 and SEC, are tiptoeing forward in hopes of playing at least some football starting in September.

The efforts have been expensive and extensive. COVID-19 tests are administered to players on at least a weekly basis currently and will be administered multiple times per week in season. (For example, the Big 12 is mandating three tests per week.) The cost, according to multiple school administrators, can range from $70 to $120 per test. Some schools are paying around $100 per test; some can allow staff members to use medical insurance to alleviate the school’s out-of-pocket costs.

For a football team to test players three times per week for a 10-game season, the cost could range anywhere from $225,000 to more than $600,000. Add in soccer and volleyball teams and you’re looking at upward of $1 million, just to test fall sports teams, unless cheaper options, like the saliva-based test that was recently authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, become readily available. Schools are working to reduce their current testing costs, which fluctuate based on the different types they use.

The finances are one thing, but a greater concern is emerging as campuses become that much more congested with students.

“The big unknown and really [what is a] greater risk than playing sports is what happens when students re-socialize in school,” said Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, in an interview late Saturday on CNN. “So there’s really a risk of students even being in dorms. And so can the schools handle that? Can they create somewhat of a semi-permeable bubble? Or is that going to be really the downfall, that we can’t even do that? Those are the things that people are still weighing at the moment.”

The scenes that were posted on social media illustrate a stark reality that we’ve long known throughout this pandemic. Many young people, who are statistically less likely to get seriously ill from COVID-19 than their older counterparts, seem willing to take the risk of catching and spreading the virus in exchange for having a somewhat normal social life. Where that impacts college football most is in the fact that once a player tests positive for COVID-19, he must isolate and anybody he has been in contact with must also quarantine per guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For those who test positive, isolation must last either 10 days after exhibiting symptoms or once the athlete tests negative twice. Asymptomatic contacts testing negative must quarantine for 14 days. It’s not difficult to imagine a scenario where a couple of offensive linemen go to a house party on Saturday night, catch the virus, and practice Monday with teammates as asymptomatic carriers. Social distancing on the line of scrimmage is virtually impossible and could be the reason why a team’s entire offensive line — and potentially defensive line — is ruled out of a game for testing positive or identified in a contact trace.

Conference commissioners, athletic directors and coaches don’t yet have answers to what percentage of players testing positive would be the threshold that requires the postponement of a game, but a scenario like the one above — or one where the entire quarterback room tests positive — creates a nightmare situation for teams.

“That aspect of social life is what’s part of going to college,” Houston athletic director Chris Pezman told ESPN. “The interactions outside of athletics helps balance you. It’s a huge part of going to college. It’s why you go to school. But this is the one time that you just say, ‘Hey, be mindful of how you do this, because if you go to a frat party on Saturday night and something happens, it could take down the team.’

“And it’s not just the players. It’s the student managers, trainers, video guys, coaches.”

Virtually every school in the “Power 3” that remain standing (ACC, Big 12 and SEC) are welcoming students back to campus in some capacity, but one has already shuttered that plan. North Carolina, which competes in the ACC, announced Monday that it is shifting all undergraduate instruction to remote learning, starting Wednesday after a handful of COVID-19 “clusters” were discovered in the first week of classes.

The school said it saw a “significant rise” in positive COVID-19 tests last week and 177 students are in isolation and 349 are in quarantine. UNC will continue efforts to “greatly reduce residence hall occupancy.” North Carolina’s athletic department said its athletes will continue to attend online classes and may choose to remain in current on- and off-campus residences. Most importantly, the department said, “We still are expecting to play this fall.”

Still, events like this leave coaches uncertain about the path forward.

“I told our team, I’m not 100 percent sure we’re going to play,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said. “I don’t think anyone is. But based on the sacrifices they’ve made and what they’ve done, we’re still trying to try to play. If we can manage this next segment of getting students back and manage to stay relatively COVID-free, we’ll have an opportunity. If that doesn’t happen, it’s going to be challenging and difficult. We have to work really hard as a conference and a campus to try to keep it an environment we can practice and hopefully compete in.”

The reason college football teams — or any other sport — can’t create their own bubble is because the NCAA doesn’t allow it. Rule 16.5.1 in the NCAA Division I manual says schools are “required to apply the same housing policies to student-athletes as it applies to the student body in general” and prohibits athletic dorms, which it defines as those with “at least 50 percent of the residents [who are] student-athletes.”

Though no dorms can be exclusive to athletes, many programs do attempt to house a large portion of their on-campus athletes in the same dorm, even under normal circumstances. Texas coach Tom Herman said while his on-campus players are not completely isolated from others, “they’re going to be as good a position as you can when it comes to interaction with the general public.”

While players might share common areas at UT, they have their own rooms and, usually, access to their own bathroom. Even then, only portions of rosters — usually freshmen — live on campus, while many upperclassmen live off campus., they have their own rooms and, usually, access to their own bathroom. Even then, only portions of rosters — usually freshmen — live on campus, while many upperclassmen live off campus.

Aside from being outlawed in the rulebook, the optics of exclusive athlete housing are something the sport’s leadership — which is desperately clinging to the concept of amateurism — can’t stomach. A team being in a bubble on a college campus too closely mirrors professionals. The NCAA has long maintained athletes are students first, even if the reality says otherwise, and any appearance to the contrary is strongly discouraged. A plan to change that is long overdue, and would go a long way toward solving some of these issues.

Throughout this summer, when players returned for voluntary workouts to mostly empty campuses, programs operated in as close to a bubble as college football will get. They found that they could minimize virus spread, given their resources to test frequently, contact trace and enforce their own safety protocols.

Oklahoma is a textbook example. When the Sooners first arrived for workouts on July 1, 14 players tested positive for COVID-19. In the next five weeks, which included at least six rounds of testing of the football team, they had only one positive test, including a four-week stretch with zero positives. The university mandates masks for people on campus at all times and Riley has even had the Sooners practice with masks on.

When Riley let his team go for a weeklong break from training camp after the team’s season opener was pushed back, the team returned with nine positive tests. The concerning part was that the vast majority of his team — more than 75%, Riley said — didn’t leave Norman, which means most were in the community they’ll be in for balance of the season. Every one of those nine positives were traced back to “community-based infection,” Riley said.

“Our players are not going to be in this facility all the time,” Riley said. “That is the reality. We don’t have a bubble; we don’t have a hotel that we can put them in and not let them out, other than to go to class and come here.”

Alabama head coach Nick Saban offered a reminder that athletes are still college kids.

“When you bring thousands of other students onto campus, it becomes even more challenging to keep your players away from large groups of other people who might have been exposed,” he said.

“A lot of this gets down to self-responsibility, for all of us, but I would argue the football complex is the safest place on campus with all of our medical personnel and all of the precautions we’re taking. We can monitor that. What we can’t monitor is when they’re away from the complex.”

Saban said that in an effort to drive home safety measurements, he was having the surgeon general speak to the team Monday night.

Texas A&M safety Leon O’Neal tweeted his thoughts succinctly.

Tennessee offensive lineman Trey Smith told ESPN the athletes are trying to hold themselves and others accountable, so that the efforts they’re making don’t go to waste.

“Just about all of the players I’ve talked to want to play,” he said. “How much they want to play is going to depend a lot on our priorities once all of the students get back to campus.”

Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione stressed that it’s not unsafe to walk on campus “if you follow these guidelines that we’ve given.” Masking, social distancing, hand-washing, all things that have been stressed to the general public ad nauseam for months, are important to making this happen.

The testing and safety protocols already in place in these programs have a chance to minimize and mitigate spread, but eliminating all risk is impossible. Players can take online classes, but as Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, “You can’t be an athlete online.”

It may be unfair to ask unpaid college athletes to make these social sacrifices to ensure a fall season when the country as a whole has been unable to corral this pandemic, but it’s the reality of the situation at this point. Whether or not they can will determine how much college football we see this fall.

“That will be another challenge, but 2020 is full of them,” Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence said. “I’m not really sure how that’s going to go but we’ll figure it out.

“I can’t really control anything else. I hope people are responsible and wear their masks, but other than that, you just don’t know.”

ESPN reporters Chris Low and Alex Scarborough contributed to this report.