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UNC Football Safely Finds Itself in a Bubble—But Is It the Right Thing to Do?

A bubble seems like the only way to successfully complete a college football season, but with amateurs involved, it presents both ethical and optical dilemmas.

As unmasked, party-going students flood college towns, Greg Sankey received what four months ago would have been a most peculiar question from one of his athletes in the SEC. In the world of COVID-19, no question seems too bizarre, even this one.

Why must we invite students back to campus?

“That’s what we do in higher education,” the SEC commissioner told the athlete in a recent conversation.

But for some, maybe that’s changing.

A daunting question that has lurched over college athletics for months—what will happen when students return?—is moving closer to being answered. As many college athletic leaders feared, the surge in students arriving in college towns and on campuses is producing positive viral cases. Images emerged over the weekend of revelers packed in a nightclub in Auburn, clustered on the streets of Tuscaloosa and pooling together for a block party in Georgia.

The outbreaks are extreme enough at North Carolina and Notre Dame that just days into their fall semesters all classes are moving online. UNC announced 130 positive cases, suspending all in-person classes for the fall. ND’s cases tripled within a single day Tuesday to 147, resulting in a two-week pause in on-campus classes.


While the campus spikes are disconcerting, North Carolina has possibly paved a path to the most logical plan for universities seeking to compete in fall 2020: play and train on a campus without students.

Once thought of as impossible months ago—even some conference commissioners denouncing it—UNC football players are continuing on-campus preparations for the 2020 season while students are attending digital classes, many of them back home. During a news conference on Tuesday, coach Mack Brown even acknowledged the advantage of a campus without in-person classes. Most UNC football players were already enrolled in online-only classes, but now with students not bustling about, the bubble enveloping the Tar Heels has a better shot of remaining intact. “It helps us create a better seal and a better bubble around our program,” Brown said. “The NBA (bubble) model is working. They've had very few distractions.”

College leaders have taken notice of the happenings in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels have, maybe accidentally, acquired what many around college athletics believe is the only sure way to have a season. They’ve got themselves a real, live college bubble—the envy of the rest of the nation.

“What they’ve done is created a bubble,” says one athletic director whose team is still planning to play this fall. “If there is a positive, some of their coaches are probably like, ‘Thank you!’”

Medical experts and college administrators have long described the infusion of thousands of students into campus environments as the final, and maybe biggest, test of a 2020 fall season. With such a swell in community population—especially among a young demographic not adhering to protocols—the quasi-bubble that football teams have worked to secure this summer will undoubtedly pop. And while the spikes were expected, they aren’t helping the prospect of a 2020 season. “If we’re not going to be able to have a season, this will be why,” says a source in the college medical industry.

For UNC, this worry is gone, for now.

Whether the Tar Heels’ approach is a one-team experiment or a nationwide trend isn't yet clear. The plan has its problems. It poses ethical and optical dilemmas for some in higher education. Confining campus activities to only athletics raises questions. “How do you have football without having students on campus?” asks Rep. Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), the former school president at Wisconsin and Miami who now serves in the House.

Shalala isn’t the only one who sees a problem with this. College football’s own leaders have spoken out in the past over such an arrangement. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott was maybe most vocal about it, declaring that in-person classes were a requirement for on-campus athletics. He called it a “gating issue” with several of his colleagues feeling the same. That includes Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbirck, who when asked about the issue in May said, “the students have to be on campus.” Three months later, his own university has shut down classes for two weeks while the football program continues training.

Is that right? Is that wrong? It depends on who you ask.

“I’m horrified. I’m flabbergasted,” says Donna Lopiano, a longtime former college administrator now at the Drake Group, an organization of academics who define their mission as defending academic integrity from the corrosive aspects of college sports. “From Day 1, everybody was hiding behind, ‘We would never have athletics if the campus is closed!’ Here we go, right out of the box and they’re doing it.”

Proponents of the plan view it as a harmless measure to potentially save an industry from financial ruin. Detractors see it as another example of big-money college executives treating athletes differently than they do regular students, more proof that football players should get a cut of the NCAA’s monetary pie. In the meantime, this is all unfolding during a pivotal time. NCAA leaders are clinging to the last vestiges of their amateur model in a fight on Capitol Hill over athlete compensation, encouraging Congress to pass a federal NIL bill that includes a host of player restrictions.

Ellen Zavian, a former NFL agent who is now a law professor at George Washington, believes the NCAA’s decades-old argument in legal fights—we treat student-athletes the same as students—will fall apart with schools sponsoring on-campus athletics with no in-person classes. “You ever hear the saying, ‘Your actions are so deafening that I can’t hear what you’re saying?’” says Zavian. “This will be used to say that schools are treating athletes like essential employees and they should be getting hazard pay.”

For this reason and others, college athletics officials and medical experts have spent most of the summer detailing the impracticality of a college bubble. It’s virtually implausible, they say. “You can’t bubble college athletes or cocoon them away like the (pros),” says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician who sits on the NCAA COVID-19 advisory panel. It’s an easier endeavor to sequester paid athletes for months as opposed to unpaid amateurs, who exist in college campuses in the middle of college towns, both teaming with temptations. As recent student behavior has shown, college-aged people are prone to make less prudent decisions than those at the pro level.

But above all, a bubble is implausible in college for one reason. “When the students all come back to campus, there is no bubble, because they’ve got to go to class,” a team doctor told SI this summer. “If we’re going to move forward and say they are student-athletes, then they’ve got to go to class.”

But what if there are no in-person classes? Some question why a campus is not safe enough for the general student body but is safe enough for athletes.

Amy Perko is the executive director of the Knight Commission, a longstanding independent group that promotes reforms that support the educational mission of college sports. While the Knight Commission maintains a policy against commenting on specific institutions, “the overarching principle is to treat college athletes the way the university treats students,” she says. “In this case, the same would apply unless there’s some compelling reason to act differently.”

Those arguing for a UNC-like bubble have their reasons.

Athletes represent a fraction of the student body. Among major conference schools, UNC has one of the highest percentages of total athletes (about 850) to its general students (30,000), and still it stands at only 2.8%. That small group of athletes is receiving top-class medical care, including surveillance COVID-19 testing and cardiac screening. In rationalizing the move, one ACC administrator suggests that athletes aren’t the only ones potentially remaining on campus. International students are there, too, along with others whose coursework warrants the use of on-campus facilities.

Gerald Commissiong, a former Stanford running back, has for months suggested that college programs only allow athletes and coaches on campus this fall as to create “systematic mitigation.” In other words, a bubble. “There are simple common sense things that if you want to have football you know that have to happen, you must deploy,” says Commissiong, now the CEO of Todos Medical Ltd., an in-vitro diagnostic company that is now dabbling in COVID-19 testing. “The tools are available, but (schools) are not using them because they’re scared about getting sued.”

Issues are bubbling up outside of UNC and Notre Dame. A day after Appalachian State’s fall semester started, the school suspended football practice after 11 players or staff members tested positive. Oklahoma, a model program for COVID-19 handling this summer, has nine positives and more in quarantine.

Administrators have braced for spikes beginning now and running through Labor Day. The return of students plus the start of fall camp and a holiday makes for a perfect COVID storm, they say—a reason the SEC delayed its kickoff to Sept. 26. Athletic directors are preaching patience and calm about anticipated spikes that could last several weeks.

Will they pass the final test before the start of a season? It depends on who you ask.

“I’m more optimistic than ever,” says one high-ranking athletic director.

“It wouldn’t surprise me,” another says, “if in two weeks the whole thing is shutdown.”