How college football is trying to answer its biggest return-to-play questions


When Kansas State football players returned to campus the week of June 8, there was a brief feeling of optimism after months of uncertainty.

Ninety players were tested for coronavirus, and 90 tests came back negative. So the players went about their normal lives — working out, hanging out with friends and going to parties.

“The kids saw the numbers and saw 90 for 90, and I know they relaxed,” Kansas State coach Chris Klieman said. “I think we probably all relaxed and said, ‘Good, we’re over a big hurdle,’ but that hurdle became a lot bigger because what kids do on a Friday night and a Saturday and being around their friends and going to the lake and wherever else kids go is something we can’t control.

“We’re not the NBA and NHL and keeping them in a bubble.”

Within a week, 14 players tested positive for COVID-19 and the school halted all football activities.

Kansas State was hardly alone in seeing a spike in positive cases following the players’ return to campus. Clemson has had 37 players test positive for the virus. LSU reportedly had as many as 30 players in quarantine two weeks ago, as they isolated those who came into contact with a teammate who tested positive. There have been large numbers of positive tests at Texas and Texas Tech, while workouts have been paused or postponed at schools like Boise State and Arizona.

All together, the past two weeks have provided jarring reminders that nothing will be easy about this upcoming season, and still no one knows exactly what the season will look like.

“It’s going to be a bumpy road, and the likelihood of a team or teams playing 12 games is probably smaller now than I thought it was before,” Kansas State athletic director Gene Taylor said.

Alabama coach Nick Saban said it’s a challenge unlike anything he has faced in his career.

“How do we keep the players safe and also get them ready to play?” Saban said. “In a nutshell, that’s the challenge we’re all facing, and there’s still so much we don’t know. You can get into all the different details you want to and all the different hypotheticals, but that’s what is most important: How do you keep the players safe and give them an opportunity to play?”

Trying to answer that only leads to more questions. Did schools err in bringing players back when they did? How can there be uniformity in testing or scheduling in a sport with no central governing body or players’ association? What will practice look like in a contact sport where socially distancing seems impossible? And what do the players think of all this? We talked to athletic directors, coaches, athletes and parents, as well as medical and legal experts, to get a sense of where things stand with the start of the season less than two months away.

Jump to: How will teams practice? | Uncertainty over testing
Did players return too soon? | Player reaction

What will practices look like?

Creativity will be at a premium if college football is going to be a reality this fall. Miami coach Manny Diaz said anyone not willing to embrace that ingenuity is going to get left behind.

“We all are going to have to adjust, whether that’s how we structure practice, where we stand on the practice field, not sitting in large meeting rooms together, figuring out who rooms with whom, even the way we’re served meals,” Diaz said.

More than ever, coaches will look to keep their best players apart from each other during practices and drill work and any time they’re on campus.

“You better practice and do it in a way that you don’t lose clusters of players,” Maryland coach Mike Locksley said. “We’re going to work through a lot of these questions, but I think you’ll have to rethink how much, if any, you have starters going up against starters.”

Locksley said the days of having his starting left offensive tackle go up against his best pass-rusher during drill work are probably over. At least, for now. “Think about it. If both of them get the virus, you’re in trouble,” he said.

And players better be prepared to learn versatility.

“Some of the wideouts are going to have to cross-train at safety and corner,” West Virginia coach Neal Brown added. “Some of the corners and safeties, we are going to have to teach them some base formations and base routes. Some of our [defensive] ends might have to learn tight end.”

One Power 5 conference coach told ESPN he planned to completely revamp roommate assignments to make sure, for instance, that quarterbacks weren’t rooming with each other. Another Power 5 coach said he might toy with the idea of practicing the first unit against the third unit in one session and the second unit against walk-ons in a totally separate session. Some schools also have talked about devising shields for coaches to wear on the sideline when they’re talking to players similar to what doctors wear in the operating room.

“I know some NFL teams are even talking about their backup quarterback being quarantined all week in case the starter tests positive the day before the game,” one coach said. “Everything will be on the table.”

Texas coach Tom Herman and his coaching staff have had discussions about everything that might help them get to the start of the season with as many healthy players as possible. But when it comes to how many players a team would need to actually play a game should that team experience an outbreak, Herman said that’s impossible to answer.

“What if the virus runs through the quarterback room? You’ve got five kids in there and they all get it,” Herman said. “You want me to jog a DB out there and teach him how to play quarterback in four days? It’s so fluid and so many different scenarios you could dream up.

“To think about this [in late June] makes my head hurt.” — Chris Low

Testing, game scheduling and the logistics of playing a season



SEC commissioner Greg Sankey joins The Paul Finebaum Show to offer an update on the start of SEC football.

During the preseason, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney always comes up with a word to use as a theme with his team. The word last year, for example, was purpose. During a recent meeting, Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich told Swinney he had the perfect word for 2020: flexibility.

Flexibility can be a difficult thing for coaches, who often have their yearly calendars planned out to the second. But the old way of doing business is simply not an option this season. Not when there is so much uncertainty surrounding how the actual games will happen and whether anyone will be allowed in the stands to watch them.

Let’s start with scheduling. Every conference is developing guidelines for testing before games that they expect all members to follow. Those guidelines are expected to be announced in the coming weeks, including when the tests would happen for players, coaches, trainers and officials. Some conferences have asked their game officials if they prefer to work games that do not require a flight. American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said the AAC likely won’t have reliable rapid testing by the fall, and it is looking at testing two to three days before games to get accurate results in time.

“It can’t take us four to five days to be able to test people and get the results back,” a Group of 5 conference athletic director said. “It needs to happen 15 minutes to a day. I keep hearing those tests are out there. I haven’t spoken to any college administrators who have those.”

While the Power 5 conferences are working together for some type of uniformity, there won’t be consistency in testing guidelines because the NCAA has left that up to the discretion of member institutions. That means some nonconference games could already be in jeopardy.

What if your opponent cannot do the same type of testing? What if it cannot ensure the same type of safety protocols your conference has implemented? It will be up to individual schools to determine whether they feel safe playing that game. Schools across the country have already been in contact with nonconference opponents to determine the feasibility of keeping games on the schedule. In the case of several FBS teams, including Syracuse, that means reevaluating contests against FCS Patriot League teams, which are barred from flying to games.

“There certainly are models that if there was disruption along the way, how would we handle those disruption points and still maintain some level of order for a conference football season, so we could award a conference champion?” Arizona AD Dave Heeke said. “We’ve looked at modified conference schedules.”

There are a host of other uncertainties: What if your team has too many positive cases to play the game? What if your opponent does? Does that game just get canceled? Or is there a way to find a mutually beneficial opponent to fill that open slot? Taylor said Big 12 athletic directors recently discussed roster parameters for safe competitions, but they will work closely with coaches to produce leaguewide policies.

“If you’ve got a third of your team down with it, you should give a lot of pause as to whether you’re going to play on that Saturday,” Louisville AD Vince Tyra said. “That’s where we’re going to have to have a lot of discussion around uniformity on decisions from a medical side of things and making sure we’re all aware of what our expectations are of our opponents as much as ourselves.”

Radakovich said it might be beneficial for a “game portal” to be established, so that if there is a cancellation with more than a few weeks’ notice, new arrangements could potentially be made.

“What if the virus runs through the quarterback room? You want me to jog a DB out there and teach him how to play QB in four days? … To think about this [in late June] makes my head hurt.”

Texas head coach Tom Herman

Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell said he and other Pac-12 coaches have debated and forecasted numerous scenarios, including playing a partial season and the possibility of forfeiting games if an opponent’s lineup is significantly affected by COVID-19.

“It’s hard to figure the number of games you’ll have,” Dorrell said. “Then you try to think about bowl season. Do we have bowls? How do you qualify for a bowl if you don’t have the number of games that you normally play? What does that look like? It’s all up in the air. No one can give you any concrete evidence about how the process will work out. We are literally doing this thing a day at a time.”

The Big 12, meanwhile, is among several leagues considering moving back its championship game — set for Dec. 5 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas — to add flexibility for makeup games.

“We know we can move it to the 12th and we can maybe move it to the 19th, depending on the [Dallas] Cowboys’ situation,” Taylor said. “We’re talking about what would trigger that. What we have also talked about, if two schools have a nonconference opponent bail, then do you play a conference opponent and count it as a nonconference game?

“We’re just throwing stuff on the wall and seeing what sticks right now.”

The bottom line is, administrators are preparing for a season that, as Aresco put it, could look like a checkerboard.

“There are going to be bumps in the road,” Aresco said. “We don’t know if cases are going to develop as the season goes on, and are there going to be quarantines, could you have some game cancelations? Sure, we don’t know yet. But I think we’ve got a realistic chance of giving it a try.” — Andrea Adelson

So, did players return to campus too soon?

Melva Thompson-Robinson is in a unique position. Her son, Dorian, is the starting quarterback at UCLA, returning to campus for voluntary workouts. She is a professor of social and behavioral health and the director of the Center for Health Disparities Research at UNLV.

Last month, 30 UCLA football players — including Dorian Thompson-Robinson — put together a document with several demands, including that “a third-party health official” be present for all football activities to ensure coronavirus-prevention measures are being followed.

UCLA immediately responded to the players, setting up an anonymous hotline and a web link where players can share any concerns about their return during the pandemic, including identifying coaches or other staff who aren’t following protocols. Parents asked questions about what happens if players test positive, the plans around quarantine and self-isolation, follow-up testing and expectations for the players.

“UCLA football laid out their plan and what their expectations were for the players,” Melva Thompson-Robinson said. “When they explained that to parents, we were able to ask questions and get some answers.

“As a parent, my concern isn’t just about the 2020 football season. It’s also about next year, this time, or two years from now. How are the decisions we’re making today going to impact the future?”

Those questions and more have been weighed heavily by some schools, including theories from sports fans that young, asymptomatic players testing positive right now could be useful in building up “herd immunity” among teams.

Dr. Spencer Fox, a researcher at the University of Texas, said there is real risk with that theory since more young people are becoming infected than before as hospitalizations have started ticking up over the past few weeks.

“To reach some level of herd immunity on a football team, we expect that you would need roughly 80% of the people to get infected,” said Fox, whose work focuses on statistical modeling of infectious disease dynamics. “Of those, if you do the math for all college athletes or all football players, you could figure out roughly how many you would expect to be hospitalized, how many you would expect to die. You could do the really morbid calculus on that.

“The second thing, though, is there’s just so much that we’re still learning about this virus. There was a recent study that came out in the past couple of weeks that found evidence that antibody levels — a signal for how much immunity people have to a virus — in people who were infected a few months ago are already very low, suggesting that maybe immunity to this virus after infection could be lost in in three or four months. So I don’t know if you want to risk that type of thing and then find out a couple of months later that immunity isn’t as long-lasting as you think.”

And, as Taylor, the Kansas State athletic director says, questions remain about recovered players returning to workouts.

“The concern our doctors have, and I’ve not seen it here, but they’s seeing that athletes that do have it, when they come back and start working out again, it’s much harder for them to get in shape because of the respiratory issue,” Taylor said. “And then there is some indication that there might be some cardiovascular issues lingering down the road. There are potentially some issues later that we need to make sure they understand.”

Aresco argues that being on campus remains the safest place for athletes.

“People ask, did the kids come in too early?” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said. “To me, that makes no sense, because by coming in, we were able to detect who had the virus because we’ve been testing. If they hadn’t come in, they would have had it and not known it. We’ve been able to help them, we’ve been able to quarantine them, see if they need treatment.

“If you’re a student-athlete, how are you not better off being tested, having daily screenings, temperature checks, wellness questionnaires, social distancing, extra cleaning and sanitation, wearing of masks? It’s not a perfect bubble, but we’re making it as safe as we can make it.”

Chris Hutchinson, a former All-American at Michigan whose son, defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, current plays for his alma mater, also believes campuses are doing what they can to keep student-athletes safe.

An emergency room doctor at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan, Chris Hutchinson said he was fully comfortable sending his son back to campus and doesn’t believe the majority are in danger of serious health problems. The program even sent out a survey very early on, asking parents what their comfort levels were with different scenarios related to COVID-19.

“I spoke to [head coach Jim] Harbaugh a couple times about this,” Hutchinson said. “My biggest point to him was, the great thing about college sports, college football, is you have all these kids from all walks of life and they all come together as one. But that also creates the problem, because they are so very different and everyone has different experiences.”

While some teams that started voluntary workouts in early June have seen high positive test numbers, others — like Louisville, Maryland and Indiana — have not.

For teams like Oklahoma, which announced voluntary workouts would not begin until July 1, time will tell if it was the right decision to return later than most programs. Athletic director Joe Castiglione isn’t passing judgment on other schools’ plans, saying it’s impossible to predict how smoothly OU’s initial testing and athlete return will go.

“Anyone can argue we were going to have to bring them back at some point,” Castiglione said, “but the experts were very concerned about the timetable, primarily because everything that was going on around us, different states being at different stages in the rate of positive tests, the availability of testing … Logistically, could we have done it [earlier]? Sure. But we were talking about — medically was it the wisest thing to do?”

Even the experts don’t really have the answers there.

“I understand that athletics are really important because, in times like we’re in right now, sports are great for bringing people together, taking your mind off the situation going on outside,” Dr. Fox said. “I think there are really good reasons to bring sports back. I just don’t know the best way to do it safely.” — Andrea Adelson, Tom VanHaaren and Dave Wilson

Where do the players stand on the sport’s return?

Before colleges began voluntary workouts, ESPN surveyed 73 FBS players anonymously, and 64 said they were comfortable practicing and playing games without a coronavirus vaccine.

One Power 5 starter said he has a heightened awareness that the virus is around him and his teammates.

“The fact that they’re trying to bring everyone back is crazy to me,” the player said. “That’s why I say it’s not just within the team, because we have to go to class and all that, so you never know, that could turn into a whole circus. Overall, everybody has to have the mindset that the pandemic is still going on, so be smart, sterilize things, keep your mask on and social distance.”

Another Power 5 starter said many players must weigh their safety with the need to boost their NFL chances.

“Even if you technically have the option to not be back, nobody who wants to play or has serious football aspirations can sit out,” the player said. “So I don’t think our safety or comfort is going to be the utmost concern for universities. I think we’re going to have people back who don’t necessarily feel safe to come back or feel like they should be back, but they’re going to be back because there’s a bigger picture for them. You want to go play in the NFL and see that dream realized.”

But players are speaking up, whether about their safety amid the pandemic or their feelings about racial injustice and the need for change.

A player at a Power 5 school spoke out after his school decided to conduct random COVID-19 tests, rather than testing every player. The school tested each player when they first arrived, but once the athletes were on campus, the program tried random testing. After a conversation with his head coach, the program changed its testing protocols. “We have more sufficient testing now because this is bigger than football,” the player said. “It’s people’s health you could be messing with.”

There seems to have been a learning curve for all parties involved, including the universities. Some programs, including Ohio State and Indiana, had their players sign pledges, acknowledging the student-athletes were accountable for their actions. The Ohio State pledge stated that the student-athletes recognize any failure to comply might lead to immediate removal of athletic participation privileges, not including the athletic scholarship.

“I think any school that’s doing that is just trying to save their ass,” one player said. “We’re in college, they know there’s going to be a select group that’s not going to abide by the rules.”

According to Jan McLean Bernier, a Minneapolis-based lawyer, the pledges don’t carry any legal weight and, given how they are written, don’t meet the standard of being a contract.

“You’re asking someone to sign a document who is 18, 19, 20 years old who has zero bargaining power against an NCAA university,” McLean Bernier said. “The willingness to sign this document is a huge question for me. There’s so many different scenarios you can come up with, and if you’re a little skeptical of how the NCAA treats its athletes in the first place, you can go down that path.”

Melva Thompson-Robinson had similar feelings.

“Once I got wind that Ohio State was having players sign pledges, I was like, ‘You don’t sign anything until I review it,'” she said. “As a faculty member, I know how universities work, and it’s about protecting the brand. They will do that at all cost. So no, we’re not signing any of your rights away [right now]; this is too serious to be doing that.”

The waivers have only popped up at a few programs, though, so for now, it’s not a concern for many parents.

But as Hutchinson and Thompson-Robinson said, an open line of communication with coaches is key, and they know this is ultimately the first hurdle to college football returning.

“The biggest next step is when they actually start practicing. Michigan is working out with no more than 55 student-athletes in the building in one day, because that’s the number they were comfortable keeping the building clean,” Hutchinson said. “But when you have to start practice and you get these guys together, you’ve lost your social distancing ability. So that’s going to be our next test of whether or not we’re comfortable with a couple cases popping up, because it’s going to happen.” — VanHaaren

ESPN senior writers Ivan Maisel and Adam Rittenberg contributed to this report.

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