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NCAA, Interrupted

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Liberty coach Hugh Freeze coached against Syracuse from a hospital bed after suffering from a disc issue and staph infection during the 2019 season. Photo: ESPN

By Robert Herron, MA, CSCS*D, ACSM-CEP |

As summer wanes, preseason anxiety has been replaced with will/should-there-be-a-season anxiety. Debate and uncertainty fill the radio and television airways, set the tone for all the internet and newspaper columns (this one included), and keep university administrators up at night. These decisions are hard, and I do not envy those that must carry the burden. However, eventually universities will have to make a decision, adjust on the fly, and live with the consequences.  

Recently, the NCAA released an updated document to help member institutions prepare for fall sports and COVID-19. For the hopeful, there is good news.  With resources, an evidence-based plan, and maximal buy in from all of the people involved in college sport and society writ large – the risks can be mitigated. The bad news is, the risks we are discussing are associated with an ongoing pandemic and public-health crisis.  Even professional organizations, with considerable resources, are still testing positive.

Scientists, healthcare providers, and public-health professionals have built an impressive body of knowledge with respect to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and related illness. And, to their credit, the NCAA has put forth evidence-based guidelines to lower the risks for student-athletes and employees while working with- and around the team.  But the question remains, so what? 

As a society, we are all connected. In order to survive, viruses must spread.  As such, viruses have evolved to be pretty good at spreading between hosts and the data show SARS-CoV-2 is better than most.  Even if athletic programs follow NCAA policies to the letter, the risk will never be lower than if sport-related activities were suspended.  Even if the virus does not seriously impact those that were originally exposed, large gatherings all but guarantee that the virus will spread to people within and around those participating in such activities.  That is the paradox. Restarting NCAA sports this fall, no matter how safely it is done, will further facilitate the spread of the virus – full stop.      

Additionally, NCAA guidelines bring forth new challenges.  The people in search of a fall sport that allows 6-feet of social distancing and wearing mask when distancing is not possible, will probably be searching for a long time.  Furthermore, what are the practical solutions to the issues brought about by the 14-day mandatory quarantine of people at risk of having been exposed?  What is the timeline for canceling competition?  Who gets the win and loss? What is to be done about how a 14-day quarantine can interrupt responsibilities of school and work? What happens when an outbreak is traced back to university-sectioned sporting activities?           

The Ivy League already suspended fall sport competition. Among other conferences’ adjustments, the Big 10 and Pac 12 have officially suspended out-of-conference competitions for fall 2020.  Eliminating out-of-conference games can help conferences create uniform COVID-19 policies and procedures, while trying to carve out space for a shorter season that can help ease the sting of losing revenue.  But tougher decisions are in the balance as July transitions to August. 

Maybe most importantly, the overwhelming opinion of the scientific community is – we know a lot, but we do not know enough.

We know there are symptoms.  We know there are people can spread the virus prior to showing symptoms. We know the virus is dangerous; albeit less dangerous in some populations and more so in others.  We know we have inadequate testing and contact tracing – on the population level. We know social distancing, wearing masks, and staying diligent with appropriate hygiene practices can continue to help slow the spread of the virus.  We know that, collectively, we have to try to slow the spread in order to protect strangers and loved ones.  We know that keeping transmissions low affords the healthcare system the resources required to care for those in need.  We know that more than 145,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the United States of America, to date.

We know that people are hurting emotionally. We know that people are struggling mentally. We know that people are hurting economically. We know people want to go back to work.  We know people want to go back to school. We know people want to play and watch sports. We know people want to go back to normal. However, we also know there is no end in sight.

Discussing the return of college sports within the framework of what we know, is a daunting task.  Unfortunately, the NCAA guidelines do not change the nature of specific sports nor the world in which we live. Physical distancing weighs prominently in best practices but seems unrealistic in most fall-sport settings.  Those involved in intercollegiate athletics, their families, and their communities are made up of those considered to be low- and high-risk populations.  It is hard to see how those involved in athletics could allow those associated with fall sports to take on more pandemic-related risk than their university peers.  And we do still do not know enough.    

While many college programs have the resources to provide adequate testing and contact tracing, others do not. As such, those with resources may be able to have some sort of a season; but it seems hard to argue that their participation in sport-related activities does not increase the risks to themselves and others. And, if a season does start, chances are it will not finish uninterrupted.    

Moreover, few groups of people will operate under the exact-same circumstances as the virus does not uniformly impact the entire country and mandates and policies vary between states, local governments, and universities.     

It would be wonderful if following the NCAA guidelines and playing only in-conference games in empty stadiums and venues solved all the problems.  However, we know it does not.

Years from now, we will better understand the impact of this virus; but much as we want to have NCAA sports, it is probably best to hit pause – for now. 

Robert L. Herron is a faculty member at the United States Sports Academy.  Robert is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist® with distinction from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA-CSCS*D®) and a Clinical Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM-CEP®). rherron@ussa.edu

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