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As pro sports successfully restart, UVa and other college programs face more daunting COVID-19 challenges

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The Associated Press

Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall watches his team warm up prior to the Virginia Tech game on Nov. 29.

In an ideal world, the Virginia football team will safely open its season Sept. 7 against Georgia in an exciting ACC vs. SEC matchup.

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, athletic departments are being forced to make less than ideal decisions.

Several FCS conferences plan on playing football in the spring after bowing out of a fall season due to the virus. The Big Ten and Pac 12 moved away from nonconference action in the fall, announcing the plan to play only conference football games.

That’s if the leagues can safely play sports at all this fall.

While college athletic departments grapple with how to approach fall sports, professional leagues continue resuming or starting their seasons. For example, the PGA Tour effectively restarted its season a month ago. Despite a few hiccups — including former UVa golfer Denny McCarthy testing positive for COVID-19 — the Tour has played multiple events without drastic COVID-19 impacts.

Other leagues, such as the WNBA and NBA, are in Florida “bubbles” preparing for play to begin by the end of the month. UVa’s Jocelyn Willoughby is set to make her WNBA debut Saturday. The NBA has reported zero positive COVID-19 tests since July 13.

Major League Baseball found similar testing success, having just six of 10,548 tests since July 16 return as positive. Major League Soccer, which features a few former Wahoos, received zero positive tests out of the 1,106 people tested on July 18 and 19. The NHL, which will be playing in two “bubbles” in Canada, also is receiving low positive test rates.

With professional leagues finding success in the early stages of returning to action, does that bode well for college sports in the fall?

Not exactly.

The college bubbl


Professional leagues creating safe “bubbles” is great news for sports fans. If the clean sites hosting games keep the virus out of the site, the seasons will likely finish without any issue. That means Virginia fans can sit back and relax while watching former Cavaliers like Willoughby, Malcolm Brogdon and others as they compete at the highest level.

Fans can see Sean Doolittle pitch for the Nationals for the first time since winning a World Series.

Unfortunately, college athletic departments can’t create bubbles. Unlike the NBA or WNBA, college teams can’t stay in the same location as their opponents. There’s no realistic scenario where UVa and all of its football opponents stay isolated in the same town for two weeks prior to their game while also avoiding contact with the outside world and taking classes.

The largest issue surrounding the return of college sports is the return to college itself.

UVa’s admission page says roughly 25,000 students were enrolled for the fall semester of 2019. Assuming that number remains accurate this fall, the university would bring 25,000 people into a community during a pandemic. While the school has safety protocols in place for students to follow prior to their arrival on Grounds, bringing that number of people into one community from different parts of the country and world comes with risk.

Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker called the plans “a recipe for disaster” earlier this month.

Once UVa attempts to compete in fall sports while holding in-person instruction, any possible bubble is popped. Virginia’s student-athletes will interact with other students during a typical day, and unlike the professional sports leagues, the students won’t be tested nearly as frequently as those within the professional sports bubbles.

Creating a college sports bubble is close to impossible, and positive COVID-19 test results from students can have negative effects on the surrounding community if the cases lead to increased spread.

“Today, sadly, the data points in the wrong direction,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said last week. “If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic.”

Testing turnaroundAccording to reporting from The Athletic earlier this month, NBA tests take only 12 to 15 hours to process, and players, coaches, team personnel and media are all tested to keep COVID-19 out of the bubble. If someone tests positive, they isolate to ensure the virus doesn’t spread.

College athletic programs don’t have nearly that level of speed in their testing turnarounds.

The NCAA recently recommended testing results be received within three days of competition in high contact sports. Football certainly falls under the category of high contact. The 72-hour rule leaves plenty to be desired.

If a player takes a test Wednesday night prior to a Saturday afternoon game, there’s still ample time between the test and the game for them to be exposed to the virus. By the time kickoff rolls around, the test result could be irrelevant.

It’s clear that frequent testing with rapid results helps professional leagues play safely. It’s highly unlikely college communities can reach the same level of testing frequency and match the turnaround time as those professional organizations.

Lack of organizationPart of the allure of conference-only play is the ability to standardize testing and safety protocols across the conference. Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall supports the idea of conference-only play for that very reason.

“I just think there’s a lot of variance right now,” Mendenhall said of testing numbers and safety protocols. “There isn’t a national consistency approach mandated from the NCAA or other conferences yet, and so with that any reporting you have to include variance within that.”

Mendenhall’s team works out while wearing masks and following strict social distancing protocols. Disinfecting practices are in place as the program does everything it can to return to action safely.

If other programs don’t follow strict protocols, Mendenhall thinks it’s fair to remove those programs from competition for safety reasons.

“Now that we’re back, now we have another challenge, because they’re closer together, we’re sweating, we’re breathing on each other, we’re social distancing, we’re wearing masks, we’re doing everything we can to mitigate,” Mendenhall said. “I can only hope that others are doing that, and if they’re not, I would love for them to be disqualified.”

Conferences and individual programs are left to make decisions regarding testing and safety protocols. There’s a lack of standardization with safety protocols across college programs, whereas professional leagues are competing largely due to clear guidelines that apply to every athlete and team.

The bottom line

The UVa football program received two positive results out of its 110 initial COVID-19 tests. The initial starting point is encouraging.

While initial numbers provide some information, they don’t provide the full picture.

College athletic programs can’t create a bubble when thousands of students return and in-person instruction begins. Testing at the college level falls well short of the testing procedures at the professional level.

Safe bubbles allow for the return of professional sports. Student-athletes, who aren’t paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to compete, won’t have the luxury of competing in those bubbles.

UVa is doing about all it can to return to workouts safely, especially within the football program.

“I think they’ve handled the masking, the social distancing, the hand washing, and some of the other protocols we have in place at a strong level,” Mendenhall said. “It’s not habitual yet and it’s not truly a part of our culture yet, but I do believe the information that we gathered along the way from other programs, not only internally but externally, as our players were viewing it as we were viewing it and adapting and applying in our program, has allowed a really strong return and a strong initial starting point.”

It’s a good start for the Wahoos, but maintaining good numbers when 25,000 people flock back to Grounds is an entirely different challenge.

“And I’ll say initial because there’s still a lot of work to do,” Mendenhall added.

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