The NCAA’s chief medical officer and two of its infectious disease expert advisers warned Thursday the uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus throughout the United States remains an enormous obstacle for college sports to overcome.
“I feel like the Titanic. We have hit the iceberg, and we’re trying to make decisions of what time should we have the band play,” said Dr. Carlos Del Rio, executive associate dean at Emory.
Del Rio, a member of the NCAA’s COVID-19 advisory panel, appeared with NCAA chief medical officer Dr. Brian Hainline on a webinar hosted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
Earlier this week, the Big Ten and Pac-12 became the first Power Five conferences to decide not to play football, or any sports, this fall.
In all, four Bowl Subdivision conferences are pointing toward trying to make a spring football season work. Six others say they are still planning a fall season, including the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12 — more than three-dozen big schools from New York to Texas.
“We need to focus on what’s important,” Del Rio said. “What’s important right now is we need to control this virus. Not having fall sports this year, in controlling this virus, would be to me the No. 1 priority.”
The United States has had more than 5 million COVID-19 cases.
College sports administrators and coaches have been making the case schools are providing structured environments with frequent testing and strict protocols that make athletes safer than the general population.
“We had some positive tests when our student-athletes first came back,” Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne said. “We had a dramatic decrease since they’ve gotten under our umbrella and that’s good. Basically we have our student-athlete under our umbrella. On a college campus where students are going to class, it’s hard to create a bubble.”
Hainline said about 1%-2% of college athletes who have been tested by schools have been positive for COVID-19.
Del Rio said conferences are coming to different decisions not because they have different information, but because they are assessing risk differently.
“Some conferences will say, we’ll go forward. It’s a very narrow path, hopefully they’ll be no infections and if there are infections we’ll be able to detect them, and we we’ll be able to stop them and we won’t have an outbreak,” Del Rio said. “But other conferences say, no. Our tolerance is for zero risk and therefore we will not have it. It’s exactly the same data just being looked at in different ways.”
The NCAA Tournament and other college sports sports were canceled in the spring because of the surging pandemic. Hainline said he hoped by now national testing, tracing and surveillance programs would have led to the virus being better contained.
“That hasn’t happened, and it’s made it very challenging to make decisions,” he said.
Del Rio pointed to Georgia, where Emory is located, as an example of a state where the virus is spreading at a troubling rate. He said the state is at 30 cases per 100,000 people, but the goal should be 10 of fewer.
“If we can get there, we can do a lot of things,” Del Rio said.
Concerns about an inflammatory heart condition called myocarditis and the uncertainty of its long-term effects in some COVID-19 patients were cited by the Big Ten and Pac-12 as one of the reasons for shutting down fall sports. Hainline said he was aware of about 12 virus-related cases of myocarditis among college athletes.
Dr. Colleen Kraft, a professor and infectious disease expert at Emory and a member of the NCAA’s advisory panel, said even though the number of patients she is seeing with myocarditis brought on by COVID-19 is small, the toll is significant.
“I’m currently seeing very sad stories,” she said. “I think one case of myocarditis is too many.
Elsewhere, major college football had another school announce it would not play in the first semester. New Mexico State became the 53rd FBS schools overall, and third unaffiliated with the conference, to look toward making up the season in the spring. The Aggies had only four games left on their schedule, and the state of New Mexico’s 14-day quarantine order made playing a football schedule with road games “impossible,” the school said.
Meanwhile, the College Football Playoff selection committee met virtually this week and new chairman Gary Barta, who is athletic director at Iowa in the Big Ten, said while the season is uncertain the group’s task in unchanged.
“If the board and management committee say we are having a CFP,” he said, “we will be ready.”