College football on the brink: Push to play undercut by virus outbreaks

At big-time sports programs, those same youths generate an outsized chunk of business income through television broadcasts, ticket sales and sports bar tabs.

Public school sports programs in the NCAA’s highest-profile Football Bowl Subdivision generated roughly $8.8 billion in revenue in 2018. A lucrative cash flow combination delivered more than half of those dollars. That includes media rights deals, ticket sales, revenue-sharing agreements with athletic conferences and the NCAA, plus postseason football games and sponsorships.

The money helps pay for some of the biggest-ticket expenses associated with college sports. According to aggregate data maintained by the Knight Commission, public Football Bowl Subdivision schools spent $5 billion — nearly 60 percent of their total expenses in 2018 — on salaries and benefits for coaches and staff, in addition to overhead costs such as debt service on athletics facilities projects and equipment.

Less income means less money to pay salaries or service debt. Other teams must brace for hits to crucial support that in the past came from college budgets now reeling from pandemic-spurred losses.

Stamping out potential campus outbreaks hinges on testing for Covid-19, plus isolating the infected and tracing their contacts. Yet some athletic conferences and schools are still building clear, consistent and definitive standards to test athletes for the disease in the coming weeks and months.

Others have uneven plans for how they’ll acquire tests, which kind they will administer and when — or how much they will cost.

“Everybody has major questions. We may do a lot of testing and have major outbreaks, we may do very little testing and have no outbreaks,” said Carlos Del Rio, the executive associate dean of the Emory School of Medicine and a member of an NCAA coronavirus advisory committee.

Recent NCAA guidance doesn’t offer schools specific answers to those difficult questions.

“University athletic departments can put together safe venues — they’re used to reducing infections in locker rooms,” said Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), a former university administrator, during a recent panel discussion.

“Here’s the problem: You’re dealing with a bunch of young people that are going to socialize. So while you can control training, locker rooms, [and] playing venues, what you can’t control is the rest of what it means to be young in America. That’s the challenge. That’s why testing, particularly quick testing, is going to be extremely important.”

That has created some tough decisions. Arizona State’s president says his teams might only compete with schools inside the Pac-12 Conference in the western United States this year.

“I don’t know if we’ll be playing teams from other conferences or not, but I think we can make the conference work. That’s basically what we’re headed towards,” ASU President Michael Crow told POLITICO. “I’d say that it’s becoming increasingly likely, and we’re putting all of our energy into making that happen.”

Some schools simply may not play at all.

“One possibility is that at some point in time, people may say this is not safe no matter what we do, we can never make it safe enough, and therefore we shouldn’t have sports,” del Rio said.

“I think schools, parents, and athletes are going to have to decide, ‘Is this a risk I can take?’”

Three University of Central Florida football players tested positive for Covid-19 upon returning to the Orlando campus for workouts earlier this month. Student athletes and an employee tested positive at Marshall University, while other athlete infections were reported at Alabama, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Louisiana State, Mississippi, Texas Tech and other schools.

“I think what you try to do is try to minimize the risk as much as you can,” del Rio said. “But obviously it’s going to be impossible to say (there’s) zero risk.”

One problem is getting testing for everyone on campus who needs it.

For example, if all of Connecticut’s colleges and boarding schools reopen in the fall, higher education officials have estimated the state needs to provide 200,000 to 300,000 Covid-19 tests by early September — plus more for the remaining fall semester. A report from Mississippi’s public university system says schools need to ask the state’s health department “to provide massive testing and contact tracing capabilities.”

The American College Health Association says repeated testing is needed to assure a population “remains clear of disease,” but cautions mass testing programs require immense resources and close coordination with health officials to avoid overwhelming labs or health care workers.

Testing all members of a sports team before a tournament could be feasible, the association said early this month, but argued testing even for both Covid-19 infections and immunity “cannot provide a comprehensive picture of the safety of the student athlete ‘herd.'”

“The question of COVID-19 testing of intercollegiate athletes or other at-risk groups has not yet been settled and is controversial,” the college health association said. “There will also be questions about the need for repeated testing and how often.”

Among schools, plans are in flux.

The University System of Georgia is reviewing coronavirus response plans from its individual schools but is still weighing critical details on how campus testing will work.

Interim guidelines from the Pac-12 Conference call for testing athletes before they return to campus, but a spokesperson said officials are still discussing critical details including testing frequency.

Ohio State says its athletes must get tested before they return to voluntary workouts this month, yet the school didn’t specify estimates on how many tests will be needed as practices and competitions resume. Plans from the University of Kansas and Texas Tech call for athletes to get a diagnostic and antibody test before starting workouts, while Oklahoma State has said repeat testing will depend on guidance from medical professionals, the Big 12 Conference and the NCAA.

To get more answers, del Rio said experts will need to know more about how the virus behaves in the coming two months.

“I think the risk for athletes is probably going to be very small because they’re young and they’re going to do fine,” del Rio said.

“But I worry about coaches, I worry about the other people that are with the athletes, who are not necessarily young and who are not necessarily in good health,” he said. “And that may be a problem.”

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