A few days ago, I observed that the return of pro sports didn’t offer a blueprint for that of colleges, as the protected environment of “the bubble” that leagues such as the NBA, MLS and NHL are implementing would be impossible to create in collegiate environments.
Turns out that many of those bubbles are popping like the ones issued from a child’s toy on a summer day.
Exhibit A is The Basketball Tournament, which mandated strict quarantine conditions and frequent testing once isolated. Best Virginia, the team of WVU alumni, didn’t even make it inside the bubble, with multiple positive tests causing its withdrawal before even submitting to the first round of TBT testing prior to going to the tournament site in Columbus.
Since then, however, four more TBT teams have been removed from play because players from each of those squads tested positive for the coronavirus. Three squads, including Mid-American Unity, Jackson TN Underdawgs and Playing For Jimmy V (which ironically was the initial replacement team for Best Virginia), also didn’t make it to Columbus.
The fourth, though, shows the fragility of even the strictest isolation and quarantine protocols. Eberline Drive, which hadn’t played a game yet but was on what TBT called “The Island” of protection in Columbus, was removed from the competition on Sunday after a positive test of a team member. Their elimination means that five of the original 24 teams selected for TBT have now been removed from the event.
While this does show, on one level, that testing can help slow the spread of COVID-19, it also shows just how fragile even the best-laid plans of isolation and limited social contact can be. For Eberline Drive’s positive test, the questions are many. Was the player involved exposed prior to entering The Island, but didn’t show up as a positive test until later after an incubation period? If not, were initial tests faulty, or returned an inaccurate result? Whatever the reason, that’s just one of a number of potential pitfalls that await on college campuses – along with the uncontrollable factors of classroom and social interaction between athletes and their thousands of classmates.
This wasn’t just a one-off, either. Major League Soccer has already removed one team from its closed event at Disney World, and the game of another has been postponed after five of its members tested positive.
Wth such exemplars, there’s no way to assume that college sports will fare any better. In all likelihood, they will be much worse. That’s not to say that there will be no college sports this fall, even though things are looking bleak at the moment. However, it’s dead certain that many teams won’t play a full schedule, some teams will have interruptions and comebacks, and many “innocent” teams that weren’t forced to close down play will find gaps in their own schedules due to opponents that did. And that’s the best case scenario right now.
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That last leads to another issue. The safety of West Virginia’s student-athletes is the first order of business for WVU administrators, but that extends beyond testing and cleaning on its home grounds. What about the teams WVU will be playing? Do their protocols meet those of West Virginia, or at least minimal guidelines offered by the CDC or ICS?
For the football team, it would be safe to assume that non-conference FBS opponents Florida State and Maryland will meet them, as will the other members of the Big 12. Eastern Kentucky, without the budget of WVU’s other FBS opponents, appears to be in line with current best practices as well. A recent testing round at EKU found three student-athletes and three staffers with positive tests, and Eastern Kentucky immediately isolated them and began contact tracing.
“The University has identified the spaces where these individuals were located and immediately engaged a specialty contractor for professional cleaning specific to COVID-19 that is in-line with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines,” EKU said in a release.
Football, of course, is the highest profile program, but the questions around opponents don’t stop there. A number of West Virginia’s early season opponents in basketball, volleyball and other fall sports are definitely of limited budgets, and some are likely to have testing levels that are well short of what WVU is doing. Is that enough of a concern to cancel games? What is the minimum level of testing, cleaning and protection that must be met for a game to go on?
Those are just some of the many questions to be wrestled with over the coming months.