'How do you play?' Here's college football’s biggest obstacle to having a season this fall

Two multibillion-dollar football enterprises in America are in the nascent stages of attempting to play this fall amid the specter of COVID-19.

One of them, college football, is lurching ahead shrouded by delays, pessimism and the increasing reality that some recognizable form of football in the fall is a long shot.

The other, the NFL, is charging forward into the unknown with distinctly less skepticism. While questions remain about the league’s ability to pull off a season, the overriding tenor is that the NFL will figure it out.

A main reason the prospect of college football this fall looks so dim, according to the coaches and officials attempting to navigate the season, is the glaring difference in contact tracing rules between the two organizations. (Contact tracing essentially involves isolating those who’ve been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 in an attempt to prevent further spread of the virus.)

“If one guy gets [COVID-19], you can have 15 guys sitting out for two weeks,” said Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz. “Those guys will miss two or three games. If you do that with two or three guys [getting the virus], how do you play?”

While college contact tracing rules are determined by individual schools with guidance from state and local government, the NCAA recommended 14 days of quarantine for anyone with a high risk of exposure to COVID-19. (This includes members of opposing teams following a game.) That has led to hundreds of players around the country, who’ve had no symptoms, being isolated for two weeks out of caution.

Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and quarterback Trevor Lawrence, right, responds to questions during a news conference after their NCAA Cotton Bowl semi-final playoff football game against Notre Dame on Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, in Arlington, Texas. Clemson won 30-3. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney and quarterback Trevor Lawrence respond to questions during a news conference after their Cotton Bowl playoff win against Notre Dame in 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

In the NFL, the quarantine rules are much less restrictive. If a player has contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19, they will be tested and may return to the club following a “second PCR test within 24 hours of receiving negative test results.” The NFL rules include increased symptom monitoring and daily testing for eight days, which would be expensive for colleges and difficult to turn around.

In simplest terms, the suggested minimum time away from the sport for players — or coaches, staff, etc. — who are exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus is 14 days. In the NFL, that time could be as little as two days.

To college coaches, the differences between those two sets of rules could end up being the difference of having a college season and not having a functional season.

“How can you actually think you’re going to get through a full schedule with those being the tracing rules?” said a Power Five coach. “Having kids test positive is something that’s certainly going to happen. You’re going to talk about multiple practices – 1’s and 3’s and 2’s and 4’s. Half of your team is not going to be available. What kind of football are we going to get?”

It’s difficult to see the college rules changing in any uniform way, considering the different levels of local and state guidance that need to be taken into account. Also worth noting: In the NFL, the rules were agreed upon by the NFL and the players’ union. The college athletes don’t have a similar organization to look out for them. Nor can college coaches simply sign a swath of players in the short term if the virus wipes out a chunk of their roster.

There’s some inherent unfairness to comparing the NFL and college football. The enterprises vary in so many ways, most notably the contracts that NFL players sign and the union that represents them. Also, the NFL’s extra billions and revenue-sharing model give it exponentially better access to frequent testing. (NFL players will also wear a smart tag to monitor who they’ve been in contact with to help the process, something many colleges couldn’t afford.)

Simply comparing the contact tracing is an imprecise exercise because the testing models are so different. After NFL players pushed publicly over the weekend, the league adopted stringent testing rules that are significantly more extensive — and more expensive — than the college model. The NFL will be testing players daily for the first two weeks of training camp. Essentially, if positive rates fall below 5 percent, then the testing will go to every other day. (The NCAA testing recommendations are weekly during the preseason and season.)

Even that NFL plan can’t be considered foolproof. Noted epidemiologist Zach Binney from Oxford College of Emory University says there are potential holes in the NFL’s plan. He said there are reasonable hypotheticals that the NFL’s limited contact tracing — even with testing — could be insufficient as it can often take days for the virus to “rear its head” and trigger a positive test, which dulls the effectiveness of frequent testing.

“I’m nervous that the NFL’s contact tracing is insufficient,” Binney told Yahoo Sports. “How easy is it for a virus to rip through a team if testing [is done] every other day with all the close contact still in football? I don’t know. Maybe it won’t be as bad as I think.”

This column isn’t being constructed to determine that one method of testing and contact tracing is better than another. (The NCAA points out the 14 days are the same guidance offered by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

There’s virtually no empirical data to determine how the virus could be specifically passed at football practices and games, other than the observation that the sport presents ample opportunity. So knowing which method will be more effective will come only in hindsight.

But the method recommended in college football appears difficult to enforce.

“If the protocol is adhered to, it strikes me as a decent contact-tracing protocol,” Binney said. “The question is, are you going to honestly identify and quarantine for two weeks everyone who has been in close contact? That’s going to be a lot of people on your team.”

Not long after coaches returned to campus and learned of the restriction of contact tracing, they began showing skepticism in being able to navigate a season under the restrictions.

The NFL has taken a different tact, which leaves many college coaches frustrated at the prospect of large chunks of their team missing games this fall.

“There’s got to be a breakthrough to play football,” said a Group of Five coach. “Realistically, it’s got to be treatment, vaccine or testing. It’s got to be accuracy of testing. To do it right, you have to be able to sweat on each other, blow your nose and pull your mouthpiece in and out at least 100 times a practice.

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