Right now, college athletes aren’t just part of a team. Many are about to be part of something different, more of a team bubble.
Within, life obviously will be different from when athletes left their campuses in the spring. Even as colleges put their COVID-19 prevention plans into place, uncertainty ranks right up there with social distancing and hand-washing as the only certainties.
“Somebody said to me, we’re building the plane while we’re flying the plane,” said Jessica Reo, Temple’s senior associate athletic director, who chairs the school’s Temple Athletics’ Return to Participation committee. “We do believe there are going to be adjustments.”
“At this time of year, you usually have your plans already made,” said Delaware Valley athletic director Dave Duda. “Right now, we’re constantly preparing scenarios. Here’s Scenario 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 -- they keep going. What keeps me up at night - is Plan 1 thorough enough? Plan 2? Is Plan 3 workable?”
This is without even talking about whether fans will be allowed to show up at games. It’s also about the adults who have to feel safe.
“I contacted each of our coaches over the age of 50, asking, ‘Are you OK with coaching?’ " said Thomas Jefferson University athletic director Tom Shirley.
This isn’t just a theoretical conversation for Shirley, since he’s the school’s women’s basketball coach (and over 50).
“When I go in that locker room, I am the most vulnerable person in that room,” Shirley said.
At Temple, all this really begins Monday, when the first athletes return to campus for voluntary workouts, with tents being set up at the Edberg-Olson football complex for all athletes, although the first wave is mostly football players who live in the region or have access to nearby off-campus housing. Temple is expecting maybe 40-50 athletes, but since this is voluntary, they’re not sure of the exact number until they show up.
They should put up a sign: Welcome to the Bubble.
“That’s what everybody is starting to call it, the team bubble,” Reo said. “Who’s in the bubble?”
They’ll start with testing. The school will have its student health and employee health services involved in contact tracing. Temple also does not plan to ask athletes to sign a waiver absolving the school of responsibility if there is a positive test.
The Dallas Morning News reported that SMU, for instance, is requiring students to agree that they cannot hold the school liable for anything related to COVID-19 and waives the students’ right to litigation. Ohio State had a different version of a waiver signed by football players, the school saying it wasn’t for liability reasons as much as understanding of the risks.
“We talked about it,” Reo said of such a waiver. “We decided that’s probably not the way to go. We’re discussing having student-athletes sign an acknowledgment of the virus. Kind of like, ‘I will wash my hands.’ That sort of thing. You have to understand that all the protocols are important.”
In some ways, Reo said, it’s easier to create a bubble for Temple’s football team, which typically plays its games on the weekend, and flies charters to games.
“They move en masse. … Everyone there is going to have to go to the hotel and stay in the hotel,” Reo said.
“Then after the game, you’re going to be out of the bubble. But going into the competition, for the 24 hours before, you’re going to be in a bubble. We’re figuring out what that means for volleyball, for women’s soccer. They have to fly commercial. They’ll be in an airport. What’s that bubble going to look like? How do you prevent that from bursting?”
Because athletes have been at home with varying degrees of access to conditioning equipment, Temple will follow training guidelines that gradually get everybody back to up to speed.
“Do the guys report in shape?” said Brad Ohrt, Temple’s head strength and conditioning coach for the football team. “Maybe some are a little further behind or a little ahead, if gyms are closed and they haven’t had access to equipment -- if body weight is all they’ve got, we’ve got to pretty much start from scratch.”
Ohrt went back and analyzed what was done the first week of winter workouts, looking at sets and reps and load assignment, “to try and write a program that is 50% of that program.”
The next week, guidelines call for 30%, then 20%, 10%.
So the first wave of football players, maybe 40 of them, Ohrt expects, will be back Monday. Then another group is expected back July 6. By July 13, they’re hoping Philadelphia will be in a green phase and workouts can become mandatory, with the understanding that mandatory isn’t the same as all athletes feeling comfortable returning, that allowances may have to be made.
“We’re all within a couple of weeks of each other on this,” Ohrt said of when rival programs are beginning these workouts. Of conditioning in general: “I have no doubt we’ll get to where we need to be. It’s just going to be a slow process to get there.”
They’ll start weight training outside in the yellow phase of state guidelines, with the eventual hope that they’ll get indoors sometime in July. Not all the equipment is conducive to moving outside. Right now, Ohrt said, some obvious tweaks are being made, such as squat racks not facing each other, in addition to being distanced.
“We’re trying to control where they’re breathing, who they’re breathing toward,” Ohrt said, noting that activities that require a partner are scrapped for now. “Maybe train the same muscle groups in a different way.”
Shirley, the AD at Division II Jefferson, said he strongly recommended that athletes not be the first group that comes back ahead of other students, since in his mind athletes are a group that could easily spread the virus.
“We sweat, we’re together in small groups,” Shirley said.
The University of Houston chose not to test athletes coming in, then shut down voluntary workouts last week, announcing that six symptomatic student-athletes in various sports had tested positive for the coronavirus.
At Jefferson, fall athletes would typically report a week ahead of other students. This year, Shirley said, the current plan is for athletes to come back in late August with all other students.
He noted that if students are tested and are negative and at some point during a semester test positive, schools are going to need to take responsibility for that student, whatever is signed on a piece of paper. Jefferson is looking at renting more off-campus housing, so on-campus rooms can be singles. Dining halls that seat fewer, taking reservations but also serving more takeout.
Duda said he’ll take the approach with Delaware Valley athletes that they need to be the role models on campus for safe social distancing and other ways of staying healthy.
“I actually think the 8-to-5 hours, when people are around monitoring, that’s going to work,” Duda said. “Now what happens at 8:30 at night? That’s where your leadership comes in, where your captains come in.”
Budgets will be impacted by various guidelines, Duda said.
“Let’s say you send a field hockey team to a game on a bus,” Duda said. “The bus company may require fewer people on the bus. You might need two buses. The cost of that trip just doubled.”
What a Power 5 school can afford to do, Duda said, will be “dramatically different” from what typical Division III schools can afford. Although even in big-time college football, that’s assuming fans will be paying customers this fall, which is no given.
Duda is referring, for example, to the costs of frequent testing. On the subject of athletes’ signing waivers, Duda said, “it’s been discussed. You really have to be careful of your connotation. It could be a waiver that makes people fearful. I think it has to be the other way, that we’re following every guideline. It has to be more of a reassuring thing.”
Reading CDC guidelines for sports, Shirley said, you see items like somebody should be at a field wiping balls down every 30 minutes. “Another recommendation: Buy everyone a ball, have their name on it.”
So recs come with price tags. Earlier Division II guidelines, Shirley said, suggested that competition might not begin until Oct. 1. But things are happening at all levels, where financial factors also come into play.
“If you don’t come back, then you lose body count,” Shirley said. “Everybody enters the transfer portal.”
“A lot of people you hear say, ‘We can’t do this,’ " Duda said of the hurdles involved. “At some point, we’re going to have to say, ‘We can, and this is how we’re going to do it.‘ ”
Obviously, there will be protocols after positive tests. Al Bellamy, Temple’s head athletic trainer, said the school will follow CDC guidelines, quarantining athletes, having them treated by team physicians through telemedicine. They will be retested and need to clear a physical to return to play.
If Temple athletic staffers don’t feel safe being inside one of those bubbles, they’re being asked to speak up, Reo said. There will be “some version” of testing throughout the fall season.
“We have to be nimble right now,” Reo said. “We do want to go into this with the understanding that there will be a fall season.”
That’s the only way they can approach it, she said, even if they can’t rule out variables that could derail the season.
Most athletes already have gained experience at finding out the differences between yellow and green phases. The more alert ones may even have read directives like this that came from Pennsylvania: “All sports-related gatherings must conform with the gathering limitations set forth by the Governor’s Plan for Phased Reopening (25 in yellow, 250 in green), and the facility as a whole may not exceed 50 percent of total occupancy otherwise permitted by law. Gatherings’ occupancy counts include student-athletes, coaches, athletic staff, officials, spectators, site staff, and any other individuals on site during the event.”
Within Temple’s blueprint, to be made public as required by the state, there is terminology for our times, such as the requirement for a “three-loop system for daily washing of training clothes.”
Essentially, three sets of clothes, so there is always a fresh set.
This first group back at Temple will be a test group of sorts. ”Even for us, Philadelphia is different from every other school in our conference because of how deeply impacted this community has been,” Reo said.
Above all the details, what’s the biggest challenge?
“It’s really communication,‘' Reo said. “Clear communication. Making sure 18- to 22-year-old student-athletes, and coaches, understand the importance of what we’re doing. … All the things we are talking about -- the face masks, the hand-washing, the social-distancing. They can understand, it can impact the season, quite frankly.”
Or their own families, Bellamy will point out to them. Bellamy gets it. He was their age once.
He just wants them thinking outside the bubble.