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If college football is to be played in 2020, a shift in mindset is required

Steven M. Sipple of the Lincoln Star Journal offers insight from inside the Nebraska program

NCAA President Mark Emmert News Conference Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Whether college football will be played in 2020, and what it may look like, is essentially the lone talking point surrounding the sport at the moment. To that end, Lincoln Journal Star reporter Steven M. Sipple spoke with Nebraska Head Coach Scott Frost and administrator Gerrod Lambrecht, who has led the Cornhuskers’ response to the virus. The result is the most honest assessment yet of what will be required if football is to happen, and it has a lot more to do with mindset than masks.

From Sipple’s article:

It seems media tend to fixate on practices and games as the main ways for players to be infected. It’s flawed thinking. Think of it this way: By removing football from players’ lives, it largely eliminates the structure and safeguards that Nebraska (and presumably other universities) provides at a high level. Players will still be attending classes, going to packed parties, going to public places to eat and hang out, and traveling out of town. Do people really think removing football from the equation will make players significantly more safe?

This is an outstanding point. If schools are fully open, playing football isn’t going to increase risk significantly for these players. As the parent of a kid in that age group, surely nobody expects college students to effectively distance themselves from one another. As we have already seen, pretending that they won’t be congregating outside school hours is kidding ourselves. College kids party, and football players are typically some of the most popular folks on campus. That virtually all of the positive tests among student-athletes thus far have been asymptomatic will only reinforce the behavior. Boomer Esiason even wondered out loud recently if college players were getting infected intentionally in hopes of lowering in-season risk and missed games.

If school isn’t open, then many of these players return home to situations that are far less favorable. Being that the virus is everywhere, a player is scarcely less likely to get infected at home where they still aren’t likely to social distance. The difference is that many of the players who come from lower income households won’t have access to quality healthcare, and they are much more likely to come in contact with older relatives who may be at higher risk. Indeed, besides better nutrition and academic support, having the players on campus where they will be checked daily for symptoms and treated immediately at the first sign of complication gives them the best opportunity to overcome the illness in case of infection.

This brings us to the other necessary change in mindset. From the article:

What Frost essentially suggests is a change of people’s mindset. It’s partly a matter of folks not gasping in shock every time they see a headline that shows positive tests on a sports team. If you shut down sports, a certain number of athletes are still going to get the virus. It’s inevitable. Science tells us that.

“If we don’t get to a point where we’re able to just play football and take care of kids who are symptomatic — pull them and isolate them and isolate people in direct contact with them, and let everyone else go — I think football’s unlikely unless we get there.”

Sipple notes that the University of Nebraska Medical Center experts have suggested focusing on symptomatic players rather than testing, partially because incubation periods and test turnaround times make weekly testing protocols as much a fool’s errand as attempting to limit asymptomatic spread among college students. If positive cases are going to be viewed as a horror despite the fact that people near the college age category make up 18 percent of the total cases but only a tenth of a percent of the deaths, then football simply can’t be played despite the fact that players sign up knowing that it is a violent sport where injuries sustained are much more likely than COVID-19 to have long term impacts on quality of life.

This has been the core issue all along and few in sports media have been willing to broach the subject in this fashion. The same conversation has undoubtedly been taking place within every program. We shall see where it takes us.