Fogging Machines, Contact-Free Facilities and Outdoor Weight Rooms: The 'New Norm' That Awaits College Football Players

As schools prepare to welcome back their student-athletes as soon as June, athletic departments are transforming their facilities amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Author:
Publish date:

Even before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the University of Houston's athletic facilities, the RAZOR made its on-campus debut. At first commissioned by UH officials as a flu-preventing measure, the powerful fogging machine coated the Cougars' weight room, locker room and training areas in a germ-killing substance that endures for up to three months.

Now, as schools mobilize to welcome back their athletes next month, the RAZOR is an appropriately well-timed investment. It is uniquely designed to do one thing. "To kill a virus," says TJ Meagher, an associate athletic director at UH. The Razor will soon be in action again, dispelling into the air chemicals that will settle on surfaces and bond together to protect dozens of athletes in a suddenly health-conscious world.

Many programs across the country are in the early stages of developing reopening plans for their football and basketball training facilities, transforming them into virus-proof refuges. They're extending social distancing practices into their buildings, sanitizing them like never before and for those inside, securing personal protective equipment such as gloves and masks. If the NCAA does the expected Wednesday, lifting a nationwide ban on on-campus athletic activities, athletes will return to campuses next month to a new normal.

Coaches and staff members in masks and gloves. Temperature tests at the front door. Hand sanitizing stations around every corner. Weight room squat racks 20 feet apart. Stairwells with one-way movement, a set for going up and another for going down. Elevators with a maximum occupancy of two. Nutrition stations offering only packaged snacks.

At least in the beginning, some schools won't allow access to showers. There will be no passing a football back and forth either, at least early on.

No sharing towels or water bottles. No hugging, no high-fiving and no weight-training exercises that require assistance from a spotter. "It will be the new norm," says Tory Lindley, president of the National Athletic Trainers' Association and an associate athletic director at Northwestern. "It will be the best we can do. We're all hoping to put forward the safest environment for our student-athletes."

While logistical issues of holding a football season steal headlines—Will the season start on time? Is fan attendance possible?—administrators must first grapple with more immediate obstacles. Like, for instance, how during a pandemic do you safely welcome back hundreds of college-aged kids sprinkled across America? Some university athletic departments have just started to explore the matter. Others are farther along. Either way, roughly two weeks away from facilities opening their doors, unanswered questions linger and problems go unsolved.

"I told people I thought shutting down everything was hard. This opening up is... 'Oh my God!'" says Greg Stewart, the longtime Tulane team physician who has recently been charged with leading the American Athletic Conference's reopening plan. "Everyone wants an answer, but there are research articles coming out every day with new information about the virus. We can't figure out how to open the economy and we've got to figure out how we're going to bring athletes back who, especially in football, are running into each other."

For a while at least, that will be prohibited. Players will return to a contact-free facility that many administrators describe as a type of human car wash. Small groups of players—the vehicles in this analogy—move through a labyrinth of stations, not detouring or reversing course, while a cleaning crew behind them sweeps the area for the next group. There is one entrance and one separate exit. At the very beginning is a screening station where athletic trainers and other staff members perform temperature tests and give questionnaires related to a player's health history. There might be a station of personal protective equipment and a cleaning station with disinfectants, too.

Then it's on to a weight room set up with social distancing in mind: machines spaced apart and hand-sanitizing stations abound. Some officials are even relocating their weight room outdoors, says Lindley. Strength staff members supervise lifts, sanitizing equipment between rotations and ensuring players keep their distance from one another. Some schools may require face shields or masks while weight training, fearing grunting players will expel too many vapor-droplets into the air. A weight room's square footage will determine the number of players per grouping, as few as 10 and as many as 30, according to various administrators.

After weights comes conditioning, likely in an indoor practice facility or outdoor fields, where there are separate water bottles and towels for each individual. Forget about gathering players around group hydration systems. And as for locker rooms, some might not be used at all. One school is considering a plan to block off most lockers, leaving only a small cluster to be reused by each grouping and cleaned between sessions.

Before exiting the facility, players stop by a nutrition station or refueling area, offering not bowls of exposed fruit or made-to-order shakes but grab-and-go packaged foods and liquid. "You're not going to be able to mix your own trail mix," says Mary McLendon, an associate athletic director at Mississippi State and a former athletic trainer who is overseeing the Bulldogs' reopening plans. "It'll be different."

Maybe the most difficult task, says McLendon, is preventing players who haven't seen each other in months from fraternizing within the building. The point is to move them through as quickly as possible: enter, work out and leave. "That will be a change for them," she says. "They're so used to this being their hub and they spend so much time here."

These June workouts could prove essential, serving as pilot programs ahead of the real thing. They can provide a guiding path for future undertakings such as training camp and the actual season. And, no, every school won't start summer work at the same time. Each state is under different stages of reopening, including some that haven't even started the process. NCAA D-I Council members can determine just how unfair the advantage is when they vote this week. They can either slightly loosen the rules by allowing voluntary workouts that prohibit on-field coaching interaction or they can grant normal summer activities where coaches have interaction. Either way, "it's not going to be equitable," Craig Thompson, commissioner of the Mountain West, told Sports Illustrated last week. "There are no equal solutions."

At least 18 states aren't open at all or are in the early stages of opening, and dozens more are at completely different steps in the process—from Georgia, where gyms and salons are open, to Kentucky, which has only opened select essential businesses. In addition to state laws, there are conference bans to overcome in some leagues. That's the case in the SEC, where leaders are expected to discuss the topic at a meeting Friday. For some other conferences, like the Sun Belt and American, each school makes its own decisions based on their state guidelines. "It becomes a deal where there is an assumption that each campus is going to open up based on their own rules and regulations," Stewart says. "What we do at Tulane and LSU is partially going to be determined by the governor of Louisiana and the mayors of Baton Rouge and New Orleans."

Many schools expect to ease into training. At Mississippi State, for instance, officials are considering a plan to invite back upperclassmen before bringing in freshmen and sophomores. At Louisiana, Cajuns administrators will return to campus members of the men's and women's basketball and football teams before bringing back athletes in other fall sports like volleyball, soccer and cross country. "You don’t flip a switch and everybody's back to normal," says Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin. "You can't invite 500 back at one time. You have to have small groups."

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley made headlines last week, calling a June 1 return date "ridiculous." Many medical professionals and athletic trainers acknowledge the risk in this endeavor, especially to older staff members. The virus's death rate is far greater for those above the age of 50 than it is for those of college-age. "I worry about the kids," says Stewart, "but I'm really concerned about the coaches getting sick, like Coach Fritz." Green Wave coach Willie Fritz turned 60 in April. There are concerns over the supply chain of masks and gloves, says Lindley. Personal protective equipment should be a requirement for athletic trainers as well as other staff members. "PPE is not an option," Lindley says, "it is essential."

Located in one of the country's biggest metro areas, Houston is well stocked in that regard. The athletic department will be ready to distribute 750 washable masks, 1,000 disposable masks and 4,000 gloves, but it expects to need five times that by the end of the football season. Not all schools have so much currently on hand. In fact, in March Tulane donated 51 boxes of gloves and 200 masks to south Louisiana hospitals encountering a shortage on PPE, leaving the athletic department with few to spare, Stewart says.

There are other issues. Lindley and Stewart both warn against over-exerting athletes who have spent months away from rigorous activities. They suggest any stringent conditioning tests be shelved until a third week back on campus. Stewart even believes that cardiac and pulmonary tests are needed to determine if a player's heart or lungs has suffered virus-related damage.

The amount of virus testing will vary from school to school. Many administrators plan to test only players experiencing symptoms, but at Tulane, Stewart is set to begin his reopening plan with drive-thru testing of each staff member and player. Tulane's hospital connections make it easier to gain tests and testing equipment, but many others aren't in the same situation. Individual tests can cost from $25 to $350, one athletic director said. Thompson says prices could climb to $1,000 per athlete for all required testing. As testing grows more abundant, widespread and efficient, schools will use it more, officials say, including required testing each week before competitions this fall. For now, there's not necessarily enough to go around—and it might not matter anyhow. "Well, you could test somebody, they come back negative and then five days later, they could get it out in the community," says Cajuns athletic director Bryan Maggard.

Community spread is another hurdle. Most administrators say they do not expect to quarantine a full team on campus, citing the difficulty in ostracizing not just athletes but coaches and other staff members from the rest of the world. “At some point in June, voluntary workouts will start. That date is in question,” Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity says. “When voluntary workouts do start, it’s focusing on the time they’re not in the gym. It’s when they leave your facility that you’ve got to really be careful.”

But what if a player contracts the virus from a local restaurant, doesn't show symptoms for two days and spreads the disease through an athletic facility? That’s the reason for such precautions within the buildings—the masks, the screenings, the social distancing and, don't forget, the RAZOR. "I think everybody wants to start back to something that feels normal," Meagher says. "We've been through something so extraordinary. Anything that makes us feel normal or a pathway back to normal, we're excited about."