What’s it going to take to get college sports up and running? What’s it going to look like? The NCAA is certainly asking those questions, and starting to answer them, with bullet points.
Friday, the national governing body of collegiate sports unveiled what it called “nine core principles” to open back up, and made sure that this was announced with NCAA chief medical Brian Hainline leading the way.
There is no timetable attached. How can there be right now? There’s just a lot of logic built in. The NCAA isn’t trying to get ahead or fall ahead of public health guidelines for the rest of society.
To be clear: The head football coach at Big State U may be the highest paid employee in a given state, but he’s not calling this shot.
It should be noted, the NCAA won’t suddenly declare college sports open for business. Those decisions will be made school by school, conference by conference, state by state. Same for crowds beginning to show up.
The first principle in the guidelines released Friday states simply that “there must not be directives at the national level that preclude resocialization.” Right behind it, the NCAA says state and local authorities “must” have a plan in place for resocialization. It offers some specific guidelines on that, including that there must be a downward trajectory of “influenza-like illnesses” reported within a 14-day period and also the same downward trajectory over the same period for “COVID-like syndromatic” cases.
The next principle sounds like common sense, that hospitals can treat all patients “without crisis care,” and also states there must be a “robust testing program” in place for at-risk health-care workers, “including emerging antibody testing.”
Then we move onto the college campus, but not to the athletic facilities. (We’re getting there.) It said there should be a plan in place at each school for resocialization of students that should consider guidance on matters such as social distancing and protective equipment; temperature checks; testing, isolating and contact tracing.
Now we get to the plans that need to be in place “for resocialization of student-athletes.” It begins with more common sense, how everyone involved must practice good hygiene and anyone should stay home if they feel sick. There must be “adequate personal protective equipment for athletics health care providers,” and enough sanitizers to manage infection control.
“There must be the ability to assess immunity to COVID-19 at a regional and local level. This could include immunity at the college campus, plus a more focused assessment of herd immunity for athletics teams.”
“There must be access to reliable, rapid diagnostic testing on any individual who is suspected of having COVID-19 symptoms.”
“There must be in place a local surveillance system so that newly identified cases can be identified promptly and isolated, and their close contacts must be managed appropriately.”
Yeah, don’t look for games just yet, folks. The NCAA also said there must be “clearly identified and transparent risk analyses” in place, looking at issues such as “economics, education, restoration of society, and medical risk of sport participation, including COVID-19 infection and possible death.”
What’s interesting about all this: It has very little to do with crowds gathering to watch. Let’s guess this was purposeful. The first phase has to be getting athletes safely back playing before anyone can watch. All these guidelines are a reminder that we’re not right on top of that.
The guidelines offered three phases of reentry, the first two taking at least 14 days each. The first called for gatherings of more than 10 people to be avoided “unless precautionary measures of physical distancing and sanitization are in place.” Also, gyms and common areas should remain closed until similar protocols are in place. “Virtual meetings should be encouraged whenever possible and feasible.”
None of that sounds like a football team practicing as it usually would. That’s the first 14 days. If that gate stays open without issues, the next phase calls for “gatherings of more than 50 people should be avoided unless precautionary measures of physical distancing and sanitization are in place.”
So the number has been increased, but still with precautions, and non-essential travel is deemed allowable in Phase 2. (Bit of a vague term there.) Then in Phase 3, “gyms and common areas where student-athletes and staff are likely to congregate and interact can reopen if appropriate sanitation protocols are implemented, but even low risk populations should consider minimizing time spent in crowded environments.”
If you’re hoping for a Phase 4, with 10,000 or more people showing up … sorry. The guidelines end before the crowds gather.
“The transition from the above core principles to a relaxation of these principles can occur when COVID-19 can be managed in a manner like less virulent influenza strains,'' was the closing missive of the principles set forth. “COVID-19 has essentially shut down society because it is highly contagious and has an unacceptably high death rate. More common strains of influenza do not close society because society has learned to adapt to and develop acceptable management strategies for influenza. For COVID-19, future phases are dependent on the successful development of widely available treatment, including prophylactic immunotherapy, coupled with widespread, effective vaccination.”
“It is also important to take into consideration that there will not be a quick, single day of re-emergence into society,” Hainline, the chief medical officer, said in the NCAA statement. “We will re-emerge in a manner that recognizes COVID-19 will be around until there is an effective vaccine, treatment or both. That is why resocialization should be rolled out in a phased way that helps assure sustained low infection spread, as well as aids in the ability to quickly diagnose and isolate new cases.”
Rip the NCAA all you want for all sorts of issues. But all this makes sense, this plan for a measured return of college sports.
“For each member institution,’’ the NCAA said in the statement, “that return will come at a different time and will certainly take a different form.”