College sports played follow the leader in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they can’t do so as they attempt to get back to the fields and courts of play.
As reporters (including myself) were preparing to cover the Big 12 men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in Kansas City back in March, the focus was initially on new rules put in place to help head off the spread of the disease. Social distancing gaps for reporters (much more than six feet in most instances) and eventually a ban on all but a handful of fans per game, dominated the pre-tournament storylines.
Then, an event in a pro league intervened.
Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz, who up until that point had treated the health of himself and those around him childishly and recklessly, tested positive for the virus on March 11. That, combined with the City of Kansas City’s declaration of a state of emergency, was the nail in the coffin of the tournaments, and led to a tidal wave of closings and cancellations in collegiate sports.
“Once an NBA player got it, that was it,” one Big 12 official told BlueGoldNews.com.
While many correctly drew a parallel between Gobert’s positive test and the shutdown of college basketball, the reverse isn’t going to be true. Other than perhaps modeling some prevention and cleaning protocols from pro leagues, colleges and universities have no chance of mirroring the bubble that professionals are planning to put their teams in.
The NBA, for example, will play all of its resumptive season in near lockdown conditions, beginning July 30. All games will be played at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida, with no fans present, and close friends and families barred until after the first round of the playoffs. They too will be quarantined, just like the players, who will have contact only with others “inside the bubble” at the Complex.
While colleges and universities will do their best to prevent the spread of COVID-19, there’s no way that they can match the measures that the NBA has put in place. There aren’t enough facilities or resources to place student-athletes in such a protective “bubble” nor the money available to provide the level of testing, protected food sources and housing the pros will get.
For example, NBA players have already been tested, with the five percent having positive results and going into isolation before they go to Orlando. How many collegiate athletes will be able to get a test before they return to campus? Granted, they’ll be tested before being allowed around others, but an earlier diagnosis and isolation would certainly be of benefit.
At least men’s and women’s basketball teams have some firm documentation from pro leagues to work from, even if they can’t come close to meeting the levels of protection they describe. College football is actually ahead of the NFL in many ways in return to play plans, with a significant percentage of student-athletes already on campus for voluntary strength and conditioning training, and a mid-July date set for an increase in workload and the start of in-person coaching and workouts.
The NFL has released a 13-page memo in conjunction with the NFL Players Association to detail some conditions necessary for players to return to team facilities (compare that the the NBA’s 100-plus pages) but has approved a return to team facilities on July 28. That’s some two weeks after most Division I teams will be back on campus, thus it will more likely be the NFL looking at data and results from college, rather than the other way around, to revise or modify their plans.
There’s no question that colleges have invested a great deal of time, research and money into providing as safe an environment as possible. There have been consultations and collaborations with numerous health professionals, and detailed protocols developed to follow. At this point, though, universities have a much more difficult landscape to navigate than their pro counterparts.