College football and COVID-19: A big, disjointed experiment exposes scientific, political gaps

To avoid local public health restrictions during the pandemic, San Jose State University last week made a drastic move.

It decided to bus its football team 325 miles north to Humboldt County, where the Spartans started practicing on another college campus indefinitely while completing classwork online.

The relocation is designed to let the team have larger practices in a less restrictive county. Such preparation was “imperative” as the team’s season opener approached on Oct. 24, athletics director Marie Tuite said in a statement.

The team’s home county saw it differently.

“We are very disappointed to see any team going outside the county to circumvent a process that was put in place to ensure the safety of its players and staff,” Santa Clara County said in a statement to USA TODAY.

Such is the state of disruption these days in college football. It’s all over the map, including by bus.   

Several leagues are trying to come back this month and next after initially deciding it was safer to wait until 2021, including those with members that still hadn't been cleared for regular practices under local health orders as of Wednesday, such as Stanford and Colorado.

Lower-profile leagues are sticking with their decision not to play this year, such as the Ivy League. Other major leagues with large followings in the South and Texas are playing more like normal, with some limited stadium attendance of around 15,000 or more. On Monday, LSU even said it would no longer require a medical wellness check to enter the stadium. 

“We’re living in a big experiment right now,” said Yvonne Maldonado, an infectious disease expert at Stanford who consulted with the Pac-12 Conference on COVID-19. “We don’t know enough about (the novel coronavirus), and we don’t really understand what it does to young people.”

So which is the right approach? What is the big deal anyway, considering that hospitalizations are quite rare for young infected players? And was it a coincidence that most of the nation's elite research universities either still aren't playing this year or took so long to commit to playing in 2020? Or that only one major team west of Texas is playing games right now (BYU)?

USA TODAY asked public health experts about this now that major college football is coming back in all 10 major leagues. Their answers belie any sense of normalcy that might come with the return of Big Ten and Pac-12 football on Oct. 24 and Nov. 6, respectively.

“The disjointed response in college football is a reflection of a complete lack of a coordinated national response,” said Zach Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University. “College football is pretty much like the rest of the country. Whether it should be played is a very complicated question.”

Texas Tech's Raider Red wears a mask during an NCAA college football game against Houston Baptist, on Sept. 12, 2020, in Lubbock, Texas. (Photo: Mark Rogers, AP)

Why is that a big deal?

The question is complicated in large part because so many answers are unknown.

“We’ve been contending with this novel entity that’s been plunked down in our midst, and we’ve been scrambling scientifically to figure out how it works, what makes it tick, how it interacts with our immune system, how it functions epidemiologically and gets around and how we can control it,” Columbia University epidemiologist Jeffrey Shaman said. “This is the problem. There’s so much we don’t know about it. I could just start listing really critical questions we don’t understand yet.”

For example: Why is the virus so much more destructive to some people than others, including some young people who have died? Are there dangerous longer-term effects if they survive without major symptoms initially? How often can a person get re-infected? And will it be worse the next time around? 

It wasn't until August that concerns about myocarditis became a widespread concern for athletes recovering from COVID-19. The significance of such heart inflammation is still unclear, Binney said. 

COVID-19 is scary enough because it’s led to more than 210,000 deaths in the U.S. and still has no cure or effective vaccine. The other unknowns make public health experts want to err on the side of caution even more. Adding to the greater risk is that younger players can spread the disease to more vulnerable parts of the community even if they seem physically unaffected.

Who is taking the right, wrong approach?

Infectious disease experts favor no crowds in the stadiums and daily rapid-results testing to determine whether players and staff have been infected. Those infected then should be isolated as necessary to avoid further spread of the virus.

Unlike the other Power 5 leagues, the Big Ten and Pac-12 committed to both daily testing and no crowds before returning to play. Both previously had decided not to play in 2020 but reversed after daily testing became available, starting with the Pac-12's announced deal with test maker Quidel in early September. 

“It’s not foolproof, but it’s a good system,” Shaman said. “I think the question you then have to ask yourself is why are you doing this (playing football at all)? You’re not having fans in the stadium. That’s very wise. Why are you doing it otherwise? … Are they doing it for the women’s soccer team? Or are they just doing it because they have television revenue?”

Even limited crowds at games is ill-advised, Binney said. He said they provide only “minimal benefits” that aren’t worth the risk of increased disease transmission that comes with them, especially since those willing to gather in stadiums also probably aren’t as likely to take precautions to socially distance and wear face coverings. At last weekend’s Auburn-Georgia game in Athens, Georgia, for example, many fans in the stands didn’t wear masks.

At LSU, the Tigers announced this week they will allow alcohol sales and no longer will require wellness checks to get into the stadium — as a way to reduce wait times and crowds at entry points. The school encouraged fans to do a self-assessment instead in Louisiana, where there have been about 5,600 deaths caused by COVID-19.

Neither move by LSU is a good idea, Binney said. Alcohol consumption generally leads to more reckless behavior, not less. 

“And if lines are building up, then either have fewer fans coming to your games or have more people able to execute the wellness checks to move people through in a timely manner,” he said. “It’s a very anti-football ethos, frankly, because it’s wanting the rewards without putting in the work.”

Meanwhile, 39 states recently reported more coronavirus cases in the last week compared to the week before, with flu season possibly adding to the danger.

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Is this part of the political divide?

Different approaches and different season start times took hold in ways that loosely resemble the political divide in the U.S.

The Southeastern, Big 12 and parts of the Atlantic Coast Conference dominate the politically red southern part of the country east of New Mexico. None of those three Power 5 leagues initially decided to wait until 2021. All decided to start football last month with limited stadium crowds and plans to test three times a week, though individual schools can test more if desired.

That contrasts with the politically bluer Pac-12 and Big Ten of the West and Midwest, which committed to no crowds and daily testing after initially deciding it was safer to wait until 2021.

“There’s no question that it reflects largely a political divide, which is so disappointing,” Binney said. “There’s room for people to have different risk tolerances. I’m not saying there’s a one-size-fits-all solution for the entire country.”

In the West, football also isn’t nearly as popular as it is in the Deep South, where the risk tolerance for COVID-19 infections also appears to be higher, if only based on their decisions to allow limited crowds.

Many students and other fans in the stands have defied COVID-19 protocols, including mask wearing and social distancing. (Photo: Joshua L. Jones, Athens Banner-Herald, USA TODAY Network)

Is this also part of the scientific divide?

Such risk tolerance, financial concerns and public pressure all contributed to the consideration of how and when to return to college football. But a culture of science-based decisions also is part of the mix, or at least it should be according to their missions. For some, it's arguably a bigger emphasis than others. 

Consider the membership of the prestigious American Association of Universities (AAU), an invitation-only organization of America’s 63 leading research universities, plus two in Canada. Of the 56 AAU members that play college football, only 13 started playing last month. The rest decided not to play at all this year, such as members of the Ivy League, or held off until later this month or next after seeking more frequent testing capabilities, such as in the Pac-12 and Big Ten.

Of the 26 combined schools in the Pac-12 and Big Ten, 22 are AAU members (85%). Nebraska, which led the charge to return to play sooner, is the only Big Ten school that is not. By contrast, of the 24 schools combined in the football-crazed SEC and Big 12, seven are members of the AAU (29%).

Only one school in Conference USA is in the AAU — Rice, which also is the only member of that league that hasn't played a game yet out of precaution. 

A spokesman for the AAU, Pedro Ribeiro, said last month the AAU did not give members any guidance on resuming athletics. But he also noted that “AAU membership is predicated on being one of America’s leading research universities, which probably has much more to do with the decision.”

What's next?

San Jose State is still hoping to gain clearance to have regular practices in its own backyard instead of 325 miles away. Since late July, the Spartans have been allowed activities involving 16 or fewer people in its home of Santa Clara County, the school said. In Humboldt County, it is able to participate in 11-on-11 team practices. The school also noted it had only two asymptomatic positive tests in more than two months of testing.

In response, Santa Clara County said it understands “the desire of many sports teams to resume practice, just as many businesses are eager to resume. But our county remains in the red tier, where the risk of (coronavirus) spread is considered substantial.”

In nearby Berkeley, California, local restrictions have limited the Cal football team to practicing in physically-distanced cohorts up to 25 individuals, with limited shared equipment within cohorts. The team's coach, Justin Wilcox, on Wednesday described the differing approaches across the country as "confusing."

Uncertainty looms there and elsewhere.

“There’s a lot that can change in the next month and a half,” said Stephen Kissler, a research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “We may well be on the uptick and starting a fall wave of transmission. Part of me would not be surprised if (college football) went back on the decision again, but I think the key thing is just to be open to that.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: [email protected]

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