All across America, the vision of sports returning has been explicitly tied to the notion that players and coaches would be protected by robust COVID-19 testing to identify and isolate positive cases before they become outbreaks.
For pro athletes, in fact, frequent testing is one of the few non-negotiable areas. Without testing, you won’t have pro sports.
But at the college level, Friday’s announcement by the Southeastern Conference that so-called “voluntary” workouts (let’s be real, there’s no such thing) can resume on campus as early as June 8 came with a pretty significant hint about how college football programs are not going to meet the testing standards being established by pro sports leagues.
According to the SEC and subsequent releases by multiple schools, players and staff members will be tested when they come back to campus to make sure they don’t have COVID-19 before they begin workouts. After that, though, there’s no mandate to test anyone unless they’re exhibiting symptoms. Rather, the typical procedure as outlined in a release from Florida will be sanitation, daily temperature checks and a questionnaire.
Is that really good enough to make sure college athletics facilities don’t become COVID-19 hotspots themselves? Who knows. But it sure seems like a heck of a risky bet.
“In football, two or three hours of linemen being in close proximity, piles of bodies, it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to really mitigate risk in that scenario,” said Thomas Russo, professor and chief of the infectious disease department at University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine. “So what I think we’d really need to do is point-of-care testing for whenever these athletes get together. They’re tested that day and if they’re positive they can’t participate and they’re sent home. I think that's the only way we can really minimize risk.”
The bottom line, though, is that the college athletics community is all over the map right now on testing — with many athletic departments deeply concerned about the cost, efficacy and practicality of regularly testing 125-plus players and personnel just for football. With the cost of tests ranging from $50 to $100 a pop, any excuse not to add $50,000 a week to the budget in testing is one that administrators are more than willing to hear.