Greg Stewart’s primary job nowadays is protecting the metaphorical bubble that envelops the Tulane athletic department. The Green Wave’s team physician and an associate professor at the university’s school of medicine, Stewart oversees a regimented testing protocol that TU began using last month. Everyone in Tulane’s bubble—athletes and staff members alike—is tested twice a week. This is more frequent than most, if not all, schools that have welcomed back athletes this summer. In fact, the school’s bill for testing last month was roughly $100,000, says athletic director Troy Dannen. “This is the most likely scenario in-season,” says Dannen. “You test Thursday before the game and Monday after the weekend. We thought let’s get that protocol started now.”
Tulane has an advantage: It is connected to a medical center that sits three miles from campus. Testing samples are sent, quite literally, up the road. While other schools are forced to ship samples hundreds of miles away—some even using air travel—Tulane’s route is but a 12-minute drive down Claiborne Avenue for return times that usually range from 24-48 hours.
Many schools don’t have that luxury.
“I’m not sure we’d be able to have this testing regimen if it weren’t for being part of the medical center,” Dannen says.
If college football is played this fall—doubts have crept up among NCAA leaders—two unresolved issues loom over the sport more than any other: in-season testing and game interruptions. Rising positive virus cases across the country have both impacted the availability of tests and their return speed, doctors say, while a universal testing protocol remains non-existent. At the same time, administrators believe the latest spikes could result in even more game cancellations than they had originally expected.
In short, the inflation in positives tests and hospitalizations are making an already tough situation more difficult. “You can’t be paying very close attention if you haven’t felt like the last two weeks have been detrimental to the process,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said last week in an interview with Sports Illustrated.
While they work to determine the fate of the season, college athletic leaders are also exploring those two troubling issues. What to do about potential testing shortages, long delays in results and no uniform standard? And how to handle outbreaks that force the cancellation or postponement of games?
The NCAA Football Oversight Committee, a critical law-making body, is examining protocols for in-season game interruptions as a result of viral outbreaks, and the group is even considering extending the regular season. Meanwhile, conference commissioners, in conjunction with NCAA executives in Indianapolis, are drafting minimum testing standards and protocols, officials told SI. It is an attempt to create a uniform rule for all 130 FBS programs, something administrators feel is necessary for non-conference competitions—if there are any of those.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already announced their plans to hold conference-only games in the fall. Eventually, other leagues may follow suit. Why? The reason is connected to the two looming issues in college football—game interruptions and in-season testing. A conference-only schedule provides flexibility for those interruptions while also aligning each team under the same, league-wide testing protocol.
Record-breaking viral case loads have recently pushed conferences toward a conference-only model. As the disease spreads, testing is becoming more necessary for symptomatic and sick individuals. Those test samples are then inundating laboratories. And though testing advancements continue, scientists question the accuracy of some of them, such as on-site testing using saliva or mass batch testing.
These issues greatly impact a college sports industry that may need thousands more tests than their professional counterparts—just for football alone. At the NCAA’s highest level, the FBS fields 130 teams of at least 10,000 football players and another 3,000 staff members. The minimum in-season testing protocol, no matter the conference, is expected to include at least one test per week for each person. Some schools and conferences may require two tests per week, and then there are the athletes testing positive who will need additional testing. Figuring conservatively for 15 weeks, a college football season will require a minimum of 200,000 tests and a maximum that could exceed 500,000.
“There are challenges around testing,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Monday on the Paul Finebaum Show. “The ability to have reliable, available and timely testing is at the top of the list. In order to facilitate what may come—the opportunity to play—that reality around testing is going to be very, very important. If I can’t have a vaccine, that testing ability is going to be critical to us moving forward.”
While testing has become fairly abundant across the United States, medical experts fear the rise in cases will result in labs backing up and tests running dry. “Many of the challenges we discussed a month ago are the same: primarily the accessibility of testing,” says Chris Kratochvil, a leader in medical research at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and chair of the Big Ten’s task force on emerging diseases. “Because of substantial numbers, it continues to challenge our infrastructure and resources to conduct rigorous testing in a broad and efficient way.”
Availability is one thing, speed is another. College leaders are concerned that the rapid return of tests will impact the flow of a season. Already, such issues are affecting Major League Baseball. At least five teams last week were forced to suspend or cancel practices while waiting test results. Results that were expected back within 48 hours were taking twice that long to arrive.
During a football season, delays in testing results could end in game cancellations. Complete teams may be ruled ineligible.
For small programs, testing may be difficult to acquire, jeopardizing games between Power 5 clubs and those at the FCS or Group of Five level. “That’s the challenge,” says Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the MAC. “Everybody talks about testing. It’s still hard to source it and it’s oftentimes not a six-hour or even a 24-hour turnaround. That’s an issue.”
Administrators say the average test costs about $100 per person. Stretched over a year, costs could easily crack the $1 million barrier—chump change for the top half of the FBS but not the bottom, where total athletic budgets range from $20-40 million. There is fear that small schools with tighter budgets may not meet testing standards of their Power 5 opponents.
But a uniform testing standard may be on its way. Doug Aukerman, Oregon State’s team doctor who sits on the Pac-12 coronavirus advisory committee, says a policy is in the drafting stage. Bowlsby says he believes FBS will have a “minimum standard” but each conference will have its own policies. “I think we’ll end up with something that is comparable among schools and among conferences, but I don’t know that it has to be identical,” he says.
In the meantime, the Oversight Committee is attempting to manage what could be the most hellish season in college football history. Despite being seven weeks away from the first scheduled games, so much uncertainty lingers. “Unfortunately, we’re getting more questions than answers,” says West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons, the chair of the Oversight Committee. “We have to prioritize what’s the more important questions as we move forward.”
The top questions are related to games canceled due to viral outbreaks. Already at least nine FBS programs have suspended summer workouts because of a rash of positive tests on campus or in the community. College leaders are expecting that to happen during the season as well. “In the end, it may be the team that protects itself best away from the playing surface that ultimately is the most successful,” says Bowlsby.
Oversight Committee members and those from the Competition Committee are working in concert. A bevy of questions is on their list. What constitutes a “no-contest” as opposed to a “forfeit”? How are bowl spots, league championships and CFP slots impacted if teams are playing different numbers of games? How many players on a team can test positive and that team still play a game?
“Within the Big 12,” Lyons says, “we’ve talked about, ‘If a certain percentage of your team is out, you’re not going to play.’ Is it 25% of your roster? Who’s signing off on that? Are there ways to make that up?” The answer to the latter is yes. Lyons says officials are considering extending the regular season into the third week of December to provide flexibility if games have to be moved. That would mean pushing back conference championship games, which the Big 12 and others are already preparing for.
The first question may be the most intricate—determining a no-contest or a forfeit. Officials expect gamesmanship among competitive coaches and administrators. Todd Berry, a longtime college coach and the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, believes some school presidents, already strapped financially, will use positive cases to avoid traveling to games to save money.
Others are worried more about coaches, out-manned already, using viral cases as a way to squirm out of a game or hiding viral cases as a way to take the field. “Believe me, there are some guys in this business who will use this to their advantage,” says one Power 5 athletic director. “They'll say, 'Well, we aren't going to win that game anyway, so let's just say we can't play.' I hate saying it, but we know those people do exist.”
Bowl games are another matter. Many of them originate in close proximity to one another in the south and southwest. An outbreak in those areas could spell doom. “What if a conference loses four bowl partnerships and doesn’t have enough bowls? Where do those teams go?” Berry asks.
As is the case with the pandemic, questions outnumber answers.
Back at Tulane, Dannen actually has more of the latter. His athletes have vigilantly wore masks in and around the facility, and it has produced encouraging results. The Green Wave have tested 241 athletes and coaches a total of 901 times. TU returned five positive tests, and all of them were on initial testing. No Tulane athlete has contracted the virus since arriving on the New Orleans campus. Maybe testing isn’t the only way to fight this battle.
“If you want to play football,” Dannen says, “you’ve got to wear your mask.”