As Clemson continues voluntary workouts for student athletes amid the COVID-19 pandemic there is a lot of talk of what these positive tests mean for football this fall not just at Clemson, but across the country. A number of schools have seen a number of positive tests for student athletes and athletic staff.
Despite all of the news around COVID-19 and Clemson right now there are several key moments that we should keep an eye on as Clemson, and college football as a whole, moves towards the 2020 season.
The first moment is what weekly testing during off-season workouts is showing. But it isn’t about the first test, or even the second. Remember that players are coming from all over the region and even the country. Positive tests shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone early on. But what is important is that after several rounds of testing we see a decline in confirmed cases for the team and staff. This would follow the pattern shown in Germany and England as both countries began to restart their respective professional soccer leagues. In England it took 7 rounds of testing just to get down to a single positive test. And since then there has been 0-1 cases per testing round through 11 rounds of testing. If a professional league where players can easily social distance takes that long, college football fans will have to be just as, if not more, patient. With the last positive tests for Clemson becoming public at the end of June there is some encouraging news on this front, assuming the school is still planning to publish news of positive tests.
Even once this first hurdle is passed, college football with have to deal with a much bigger problem - the arrival of students on campus. With most schools planning on starting classes in mid to late August, there is a good chance that students coming back to campus will lead to a spike in cases on campus. Depending on how well players socially distance, it is a real risk that players could contract COVID-19 in large numbers. We’ve already seen an example of the worst case scenario when players don’t social distance at LSU, where an outbreak at Tigerland, a group of bars near campus, resulted in a number of football players having to quarantine.
Of course, even if players socially distance, any outbreak could endanger the season if school administrators feel it is safer to send everyone home for a virtual fall semester. At that point, who knows what would happen to college football, especially if everyone is sent home and dorms are closed. And while some may downplay the risk of this occurring, we’ve already seen instances of outbreaks from gatherings near campus. At Alabama, several students who knew they had tested positive with COVID-19 recently were not quarantining and attended several parties in the area, which does nothing to help matters. In Iowa, college towns have seen a spike in cases as well.
When it comes to having fans in the stadium, stay cautious, arguably even pessimistic, until games actually start. The logistics behind even having 20,000 fans in attendance, let alone 80,000, require the school and all the different entities that support a game to start planning for the season now. Add in the different permutations of socially distancing fans at different capacity levels and it would be irresponsible for the school to not plan for the most challenging scenario, full capacity. As the NBA showed us in March, it is pretty easy to cancel right up until the game starts, it is a lot harder and much more dangerous to wait until the week of a game to announce that fans are allowed without planning for it. This is why we will continue to hear about plans as well as possible backup options such as shortened seasons, split seasons, or even a spring season of football until a firm decision is made. It is also why we will likely see a delay in any final decision until as close to the season as possible. The Ivy League appears to be one league that is bucking the norm with plans to move football to the spring. It is worth noting that the Ivy League operates differently than most conferences. Teams typically do not begin their season until week three due to a lack of summer practices, which allow students to do internships and such. The Ivy League also does not participate in the FCS playoffs.
One final thing to keep in mind with fans is it isn’t just about what the coronavirus situation is in Clemson. The surrounding counties may matter even more, given that a number of fans that come to Clemson for a game from the surrounding area. So, even if Clemson is doing okay, if Greenville is still seeing cases spiking, or even if Columbia, Charleston, or other cities in South Carolina have issues there could be a capacity limit or even a ban on fans to prevent an outbreak spreading from those areas to Clemson. Right now cases are spiking in various places around the country and South Carolina is no different. It has even gotten bad enough that high school football teams are suspending workouts and the governor has warned everyone that high school and college football could be in jeopardy in the state.
Bottom line is that trying to predict what a season is going to look like is difficult, if not impossible right now. There is too much we don’t know about the virus, about public health policies that will be enacted, and what if any knowledge we will learn over the coming weeks. A month ago it looked like a season was a real possibility. Now with cases spiking in new locations a season appears to be in danger.
It certainly is possible that the safest option is to not play sports this fall. Even professional leagues are experiencing difficulty restarting their leagues in the US. Players are choosing to sit out, teams are shutting down facilities to contain outbreaks, and teams have even withdrawn from the competitions. And if professional athletes can’t do it then there is real doubt that college athletics can pull it off.
However, even if the safest and smartest option is to cancel or delay the season, there is an unfortunate truth that the amount of money in college football, as well as how it funds most athletic departments, makes it appear absolutely critical that a season of some type takes place. The powers that be are going to wait as long as possible and explore all other avenues of play before cancelling the season. But the nature of the pandemic also means a cancellation could come at any time. That’s why it is going to be important to look at these milestones as we move into the fall to understand what type of season, if any, may happen.