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Life Without a Bubble: How MLB's Outbreak Makes College Football's Plight More Difficult

As MLB deals with a nightmare, it illustrates the kinds of challenges college sports could have this fall.

As a running back at Stanford some 15 years ago, Gerald Commissiong and his teammates operated within a metaphorical, protective sphere. They were ostracized from the rest of the world. If you weren’t a staff member, coach or player with the Cardinal, you were not allowed inside the sphere.

“We actually called it a bubble when I was on campus,” says Commissiong, who conveniently is now the CEO of a biotechnology company exploring advancements in COVID-19 testing. “Campus was a bubble.”

Nearly two decades later, the word bubble is as prevalent in the sports world as terms like touchdown, home run and free throw. Without leagues operating within a so-called bubble, uninterrupted sports in America—where COVID-19 cases are on the rise—may be difficult if not impossible, experts say. The NBA is paving the way, sequestering players, game workers, coaches and media in an Orlando sphere that, so far, has proven successful. Major League Baseball, meanwhile, is operating in no such bubble, attempting to play a shortened season without fans while its squads travel across the nation to play games.

On Monday, less than a week into MLB’s 60-game season, the crack in that plan has been exposed. An outbreak on the Marlins—as many as 11 players tested positive, according to reports—has postponed two games while potentially putting all of baseball in jeopardy. The absence of a bubble has reared its ugly head.

As major college athletic leaders move forward with a potential season, Monday’s news shines a light on another significant hurdle in having college football this fall. Bubbling college athletes is not an option, both college team doctors and NCAA leaders say. “College sports is going to be more akin to what the NFL or MLB is doing, with the fundamental difference in that student athletes are going to be treated as students,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told SI in an interview earlier this summer. “They are only going to be on campus if other students are on campus, so there’s no bubble in the sense people think about it.”

“You can’t bubble college athletes or cocoon them away like the NFL,” says Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University and an infectious disease physician who sits on the NCAA COVID-19 advisory panel. “The fact of the matter is if the trajectories continue, people are going to be infected on campus and interacting with a team. It’s going to be hard to keep them away.”

However, Commissiong says creating a college football bubble—more restrictive than the version Stanford used while he was a player—is in fact possible and is likely the only way that a college football season happens. But school and conference leaders are choosing not to do it for optical reasons. Leaders could effectively close campus, barring all visitors, regular students, teachers and administrators. All classes could go online. In this situation, the only people allowed on campus would be athletes, coaches and other essential team staff members.

“There are simple common sense things that if you want to have football and you know that has to happen, you must deploy,” says Commissiong, the CEO of Todos Medical Ltd., an in-vitro diagnostic company whose main focus is the development of blood tests for the early detection of cancer, but which is also now dabbling in COVID-19 testing. “The tools are available, but they’re not using them because they’re scared about getting sued. No one wants to use them because of the potential blowback.”

The lack of a bubble in college sports has already resulted in decisions at the lower levels of the sport. Morehouse College, a member of the Division II Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, was one of the first schools to cancel its fall season, announcing the decision in late June. Why? For one, it didn’t have the requisite resources to create a protective enough bubble. Morehouse president David Thomas feared that he couldn’t keep his general student body safe. Without an athlete-only dining hall and residential building, he had no way of separating Morehouse’s 2,000 some-odd students from its student athletes.

Last week, the FCS Southwestern Athletic Conference canceled its fall season, partially for the same reasons. “When it comes to playing, resources will be a factor,” SWAC commissioner Charles McClelland told SI a few weeks ago for a story. “The more resources you have, the better bubble you can create.” Later in the interview McClelland noted one of the biggest concerns among athletic leaders: the reintroduction of thousands of students onto a campus with athletes. “That’s the bigger question,” McClelland says. “When that bubble expands with other students on campus and when it’s time to travel for games ... what happens?”

Already schools are finding subtle ways to conform to Commissiong’s bubble suggestion. For instance, Duke announced recently that in-person classes would be limited to only freshmen and sophomores. However, the university granted exceptions to all athletes—including upperclassmen—to take part in on-campus academics and athletics.

Many schools plan a hybrid learning model, with a portion of students taking online courses and a portion—usually very small—taking in-person classes. Conference commissioners say this model would indeed satisfy their requirement for on-campus learning, a necessity to hold on-campus athletics. USC plans to limit in-person classes to just 10-20% of its undergraduate body, and Rutgers plans for its students exclusively to take online classes except for those benefiting from on-campus facilities.

“When the students all come back to campus, there is no bubble, because they’ve got to go to class,” says one college team doctor. “If we’re going to move forward and say they are student athletes, then they’ve got to go to class.”

Donna Lopiano, a longtime former college administrator now at the Drake Group, believes schools are using the hybrid educational model as a way to keep alive the prospect of playing football, their cash cow. “You can’t tell me that’s not money driven,” she says. “What happens when the first player or coach dies? They want Congressional immunity. I’m saying to myself, ‘Do I trust these guys with the health and welfare of these kids?’”

All of this is happening in the shadow of the raging debate over athlete compensation, an issue that has reached the steps of the U.S. Capitol. The NCAA is asking Congress to create friendly legislation to govern name, image and likeness (NIL). Their requests are aggressive. The NCAA is seeking a federal universal standard to preempt differing state NIL laws and an antitrust exemption from NIL lawsuits, while also requesting any bill include a bevy of athlete restrictions.

The handling of virus-related matters from college leaders is under the watchful eye of lawmakers who say the two issues, NIL and the virus, are related. “I hope Congress is watching,” says Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “I hope Congress is seeing what the real priorities for these schools are because it will educate our decision on how much power to give the NCAA and schools when it comes to an NIL bill. There’s definitely an interest in handing over a lot of power of endorsement deals to the schools and the NCAA. Given what’s happened in the last few months, that increasingly looks like a bad idea.”

In an interview with SI, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) says the two issues are related in that they are exposing a “hesitant leadership team” at NCAA headquarters. The NCAA only last week released detailed, in-season medical guidelines—a week after an NIL hearing on Capitol Hill turned into an inquiry about the NCAA’s lack of leadership as it relates to the virus. “The lack of leadership issue is what is swimming through the offices at the NCAA and I don’t know if it’s a curable disease,” Blackburn says.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) is at the heart of the NIL debate in DC. He’s calling for more expanded reform at the NCAA and plans to craft legislation he refers to as an athlete bill of rights. “The question in both the (virus) and NIL is whether athletes again are going to be exploited by schools for the benefit of the institutions over the interest of the athlete,” Blumenthal tells SI in a recent interview.

College football has already hit bumps in the road this summer. At least a dozen FBS programs have shut down workouts because of community or campus outbreaks. Over the weekend, Rutgers and Michigan State announced that outbreaks have resulted in their entire teams being quarantined. This is happening without thousands of students yet on campus. “College campuses are not conducive to a bubble,” says Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin. “If we proceed on a normal schedule, we’re trying to play games while introducing all these kids on campuses simultaneously. It’s the opposite of what pro teams are doing and they are all struggling with it.”

College athletic leaders are continuing to march forward. The Big Ten and Pac-12 are expected to announce this week their conference-only schedules. The ACC might announce its plans, too, which may include at least one non-conference game and a delayed start. Meanwhile, the SEC and Big 12 could wait at least another week before revealing their plans.

Commissiong, in the meantime, is hoping to assist schools by facilitating testing. He’s been in contact with administrators from around the country. His hope for a (bubble-less) season remains in doubt.

“We’re in a world of hurt right now,” Commissiong says. “The practical reality is it’s going to be very challenging to have a sporting environment unless there is systematic mitigation. It’s tough to do without a real bubble.”

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