COVID-19 developments show 2020 football season will be unlike any other

UF may be taking a slow and smart approach to bringing its players back to campus, but not every school is. The University of Houston didn’t test its players upon their return, and accordingly it had to shut down its workouts last week after six athletes tested positive for COVID-19. A seventh has come up positive this week.

That’s about half the problem that the University of Texas football program has on its hands. The school announced today that a total of 13 Longhorn football players are either confirmed or presumed positive. Every player had to be tested in order to join the program’s workouts.

Florida has yet to have any of its athletes test positive for COVID-19, and it’s testing them all upon their returns. About a dozen or so major programs had announced positive tests before Texas did today, and that number will probably continue to climb.

Already we’re seeing some disruptions as schools react to the ongoing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Florida A&M lost its early season non-conference game when, according to FAMU officials, Southern University decided not to play football for the first few weeks of the season. The workout disruptions may continue, and they may continue on into July and August when schools try to put on their preseason camps.

The state of Texas is struggling with the virus right now, and sports teams are getting hit. On top of the Houston and Texas collegiate athletes, there was an NFL Network report this week that some Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans players tested positive as well.

Parts of Florida are also headed in the wrong direction. It doesn’t take much time with the state’s data visualization tool to see the positive test rate climbing for some of the most populous counties. Broward, Dade, Hillsbrough, Lee, Orange, Palm Beach, Pinellas, and Seminole counties have all seen their positive rates rise week-over-week for the last month, many of them with a worrying acceleration last week.

Alachua, for its part, saw a jump from the week beginning May 31 to the week beginning June 7, the most recent weeks there is complete weekly data for. The jump only went up to 2.2%, so it’s still below the 3% threshold that’s probably required to keep the virus under strict control.

However, Alachua County will see an influx of people from all over the state and beyond if UF’s plan to welcome students to campus is approved and moves forward. There will be screening but not testing of every student who arrives. I don’t know what the logistics would be of testing every incoming student, but they’re more likely to miss someone if they don’t test everyone than if they did.

The screening process doesn’t have to miss too many students who may have gone to a restaurant where a COVID-19 spreader was just before coming back to campus to have the virus start moving through dorms, the union food court, or dining halls. There are provisions in the university’s plan for those kinds of locations, and hopefully they’ll be enough.

But even if the student body doesn’t experience a big outbreak, there’s still the matter of keeping the Gator athletes safe from their opponents. There may not be a way to do that if an opponent’s school isn’t taking as meticulous care as UF says it will.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the federal government’s top advisors on the pandemic, made some headlines today by pouring cold water on the idea of any football being played this year at all. He didn’t see it as being feasible unless “players are essentially in a bubble — insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day”.

That vision is not a possible reality for college sports. As the term “student-athlete” was literally created to reinforce, the players are supposed to be students first. If they’re in a bubble away from the community, which would have to mean other non-athlete students in this case, then they’re not students first anymore.

There are some sports like golf where distancing that defeats viral spread can happen. Football is far from one of them. Players are constantly in each other’s faces, breathing each other’s air. Everything we know about how the SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads says that football is exactly the kind of activity that would lend itself to the disease propagating.

Opinions on what’s safe do differ. Fauci is on one extreme; the people at Houston who thought testing was optional are on the other.

About a month ago, I did a quick estimate for how much it would take to test every player, coach, staffer, and trainer in FBS once a week for a full 13-week regular season for my GC Insider newsletter. I got to just over 400,000 tests, and at $100 a pop, that would require $40 million across the sport. That estimate didn’t include referees, field staff, or media. I’ve seen another estimate that came out to a $50 million price tag for FBS weekly testing, so I may have underestimated by 100,000 tests.

To do daily testing as Dr. Fauci is talking about, UF alone would be looking at over 1,100 tests per week for a roster of 115 players (scholarship plus walk ons), 11 coaches, 26 staff, and ten trainers. The trainers figure is a pure guess, but the rest are based on where the team finished 2019. We’re talking 14,742 tests across 13 weeks for a cost of $147,420. UF’s athletics department has the money to cover that, presuming that there are enough spare tests around and lab capacity for it, but you don’t have to go too far down the college sports food chain to get to schools where that’s a burdensome amount.

I’d feel better if there was a plan for at least weekly testing of everyone once real activities resume, but I haven’t seen a single school commit to anything like that. Florida’s approach of testing upon return and then testing the symptomatic is about the most rigorous approach I’ve seen.

As we’ve seen with schools both in Texas but around the country like Alabama, Oregon State, Oklahoma State, and Marshall, positive tests are happening. There’s no firm reason to think they won’t continue to happen.

If the college football season does start on time, it’s hard to imagine that it will go off without a hitch. There will be programs with positive tests. Schools will have to make hard decisions on whether to allow an opponent to come to campus if that opponent is in a hotspot. Other schools will have to make hard decisions on whether to go to a campus in a hotspot. It could get exceptionally ugly if it’s a conference game in question, as past issues with hurricane-related reschedulings are any indication.

The 2020 season, if it happens despite Dr. Fauci’s recommendation, is going to be unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2