OPINION: Despite The Risks, The FCS Kickoff Game Is Going To Happen This Saturday

On August 29th, 2020, the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff will be kicking off in Montgomery, Alabama, despite the risks of doing so.

In case you haven’t heard, COVID-19 is still hanging around the United States. The risk still exists to contract the deadly disease, and people are still dying from it. We don’t know what the long-term ramifications of the disease are when people are infected, and we don’t really have a treatment, but we do know several ways to increase our chances for staying healthy – wearing a cloth mask so we don’t infect others, keeping a safe distance from people, and not congregating in very large groups where random people are breathing on each other in close proximity.

Anyone who has ever watched a football game knows that football does not allow for any of these three methods to be implemented and still play the game. So why is a college football game happening this Saturday that I would not personally attend, due to the risk to my family?

The answer to that question is complicated, but not surprising. It is a combination of many factors. Many people had the authority to pull the plug on the game, but chose not to do so. The football programs, with very little outside guidance, set up preseason workouts, and conducted them. Some athletes on both teams tested positive for COVID over the summer, but they continued on, proving that their protocols were working, and were able to have enough athletes to field teams this weekend.

As a result, the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff, presented by ESPN events, is going to happen this Saturday. I personally would not risk the health of me and my family to go to the game. But there are people that will. This is the story on how, and why, this came to pass.

The Venue

The Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff will be taking place in Montgomery, Alabama.

Based on the Alabama Department of Health dashboard, as of August 26th, Mongtomery County, Alabama reported 7,477 confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection, with 606 cases occurring in the last 14 days.

One of those COVID-19 cases came from an unnamed football player at Lee High School, according to The Montgomery Advertiser. Despite the positive test, Lee High School and Jefferson Davis High School are still scheduled to play the night before the Guardian FCS Football Classic in the Cramton Bowl, according to the newspaper. Gametime is set for 7PM, a little over 24 hours before Central Arkansas and Austin Peay are kicking off on the same field.

“We are just moving forward as if the game was never canceled,” said Jefferson Davis athletic director Britteny Coleman. A school email explained “those who were in close contact with the player will be isolated and/or quarantined,” but there was no mention as to how many players were involved, or whether entire position groups would need to be shuffled in order to field a team. (This is not just an academic exercise – LSU recently reported a team COVID outbreak has reduced the number of available offensive linemen to four.)

At first, you might think that contesting a football game might violate the local rules and recommendations of the city of Montgomery. After all, the state of Alabama is still currently under a “Stay Safer At Home Order” that took effect July 31st, 2020. In that order from the state health officer, applicable statewide, individuals are recommended to minimize travel outside the home, “refraining from touching one’s face”, and “disinfecting frequently used items and surfaces as much as possible”.

Look closer, however, and you see that exceptions were made for football – even if they make no sense.

Paragraph 11 b. (i), “Players, coaches, officials, and spectators shall not congregate within 6 feet of a person from another household except to the extent necessary—and only to the extent necessary—for players, coaches, and officials to directly participate in the athletic activity.”

That means that if you are a FCS football fan attending the Cramton Bowl this weekend, you are beholden to the city rule to not congregate within six feet of your neighbor – but if you are a football player playing in a game, involving two opposing football teams from two different different states they are allowed to do so, but “only to the extent necessary” – whatever that means.

Knowing this, what is the Cramton Bowl and/or the organizers of the Guardian Credit Union doing to make sure the venue is safe?

The Cramton Bowl is owned and operated by the city of Montgomery – “the sports Capitol of Alabama,” according to their website. Aside from high school football games and the FCS Kickoff, they host a postseason bowl game, the Camelia Bowl, and an FCS school, Alabama State, hosts football games there. They also aren’t just managing the Cramton Bowl, the football venue – they’re a sports complex, hosting a multitude of different sports.

But the Guardian FCS Kickoff is actually operated and run by ESPN Events, the arm of ESPN that owns and runs a variety of different bowl games. They “own” the Camelia Bowl played in Montgomery, and a multitude of other bowls that get broadcast at the conclusion of the FBS’ regular season. And one of their properties is the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff Classic.

Knowing that ESPN is involved with the staging of the contest, it makes one wonder – isn’t ESPN worried about what might happen to them if a player or coach of Central Arkansas, or Austin Peay, or one of the support staff, or one of the fans attending the game catches COVID at the game?

ESPN is covered from liability, because if you surf over to the official website of the Guardian Credit Union FCS Football Classic, you get greeted with a “COVID-19 update” pop-up, which links to the following disclaimer:

[TICKET] HOLDER VOLUNTARILY ASSUMES ALL RISK AND DANGER ARISING FROM, OR RELATED IN ANY WAY TO, THE EVENT, WHETHER OCCURRING PRIOR TO, DURING, OR AFTER THE EVENT, HOWEVER CAUSED AND WHETHER BY NEGLIGENCE OR OTHERWISE, INCLUDING, BUT NOT LIMITED TO, THE RISK OF PERSONAL INJURY (INCLUDING DEATH), THE RISK OF LOST, STOLEN OR DAMAGED PROPERTY, AND ALL OTHER HAZARDS RELATED TO THE EVENT INCLUDING THE INHERENT RISK OF EXPOSURE TO COVID-19.”, the disclaimer states in bold and all-caps on the event website, with “ESPNEVENTS” emblazoned on the top. “WITHOUT LIMITING THE FOREGOING, BY ATTENDING AND/OR PARTICIPATING IN THE EVENT, HOLDER, ON HIS/HER OWN BEHALF AND ON BEHALF OF ANY ACCOMPANYING MINOR(S), IS DEEMED TO HAVE, AND HEREBY DOES, VOLUNTARILY AND KNOWINGLY, WAIVE, RELEASE, DISCHARGE AND RELINQUISH ANY AND ALL CLAIMS, ACTIONS AND LAWSUITS OF ANY KIND RELATED TO OR ARISING FROM HIS/HER ATTENDANCE, INCLUDING THOSE RELATED TO COVID-19, AGAINST ANY PARTY INVOLVED IN THE STAGING, CONDUCT, PARTICIPATION IN, PRODUCTION OR DISTRIBUTION OF THE EVENT.

The NCAA recently passed rules that prohibited schools from requiring players to sign waivers to exclude the school from liability if they play and catch COVID during a practice or during a game at a neutral site in another state against a school coming from a different state. But that doesn’t obligate ESPN to do so for the families and friends of the athletes that travel to Montgomery County to buy tickets to watch the game. Based on this Terms of Use disclaimer, if a friend or family member catches COVID at this game, ESPN will claim they can’t be sued.

According to a recent report by George Robinson of The Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle, the Cramton Bowl will only be filled to 25% capacity. As the Cramton Bowl has a published maximum attendance of 25,000, only 6,250 fans will be allowed to attend the sold-out game. 400 tickets were allotted to both schools as comps, and the rest were bought online.

This wasn’t a fact publicized very heavily by ESPN. Nowhere on the official game website is it mentioned.

So why, exactly, is this game happening in Montgomery, Alabama this weekend?

The mayor of the city of Montgomery, Steven Reed, or the governor of Alabama, Kay Ivey, could have made it so that the game could not be played. One or all of them could have given some real teeth to their “Safer At Home” order by requiring any public gatherings in the city to be no more than 250 people during the course of the pandemic, a pandemic which has not stopped for football season. Other states have done so. But they did not.

Johnny Williams, the executive director of the Guardian FCS Kickoff staff (and the Camellia Bowl), could have said they won’t be running this game because they don’t feel like it is safe. But they chose to keep going.

One thing for certain is the city of Montgomery and the state of Alabama will make money from ESPN for staging the game. Every time a game is contested in the Cramton Bowl, people stay over in the city, and the city gains tax revenue from a lodging tax, and it is a significant amount of income. Austin Peay is bussing to Montgomery on Friday, and staying the night in Montgomery. That’s tax money for the city and the state.

And ESPN’s network properties will benefit, too, as the only network able to televise a college football game in the very first week of the fall of 2020. That means advertisers will pay them, and they will make revenue from the game.

When all is said and done, that is why the game is being played where it is – the city and ESPN stand to make money from it. People that could have said no, did not.

But that’s not why the teams involved have decided to play in this game. ESPN and the city of Montgomery, Alabama are willing to host and contest the game. But that doesn’t explain why two FCS football teams would agree to playing in it.

Austin Peay practice (courtesy of The Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle)

The Teams

Montgomery County, Tennessee, the home of Austin Peay, has 2,345 total COVID cases, per the dashboard of The Tennesseean, who is tracking the COVID outbreak in the entire state.

How many of those are from the campus of Austin Peay? We don’t know for sure.

Tennessee governor Bill Lee could compel the schools in his state to disclose that information. But Lee has been engaged in a long war against disclosing any state COVID infection information. For example, he refused to release the number of confirmed COVID cases at public schools, claiming that “federal privacy laws prevent the state from reporting confirmed cases by school or school district,” according to The Tennessean.

The Department of Education, led by Betsy DeVos, could require any institutions of higher education nationally who accept federal aid to report their COVID infection numbers publicly. But the DOE’s website hasn’t had any pertinent updates about any sort of national COVID testing requirements, and their link to the CDC’s site doesn’t offer anything more than a bunch of vague guidelines and an unhelpful PDF of a “KEEP CALM AND WASH YOUR HANDS” poster.

Donald Trump could use the bully pulpit to offer guidelines for safe play, highlighting the work of scientists as to how to conduct school and athletics safely, and organizing a coordinated federal response for the reopening of schools and sports. But he has done nothing except tweet his desire to see schools reopen and football be played, and his administration has pressured the CDC to weaken any recommendations they might want to make.

Like all colleges, Austin Peay has been pretty much on its own when it comes to COVID. They formulated a plan to reopen, and did create a campus dashboard in regards to COVID.

However, this dashboard does not measure the rate of COVID infection on the campus accurately, because it is reliant on self-reported tests and cases.

COVID testing at Austin Peay is free – set up by the Tennessee Department of Health – but not mandatory for incoming students. It reported 7 active cases, 40 “recoveries”, and 17 people reporting they are in self-quarantine.

Without testing everyone, Austin Peay could be missing asymptomatic COVID cases on campus – people who don’t exhibit symptoms but could be spreading the virus. Also, if people have symptoms and have COVID but don’t self-report, that’s more critical missing information.

Think of it this way – we know from APSU’s dashboard that they claim that the “open positive cases per capita” is 0.1%, which is “the amount of open positive cases (active cases) divided by the total number of APSU students and employees (10,728) as a percent.” However, since not all 10,728 students and employees on the campus are tested, the 0.1% number is truly meaningless. The positivity rates of people who request tests could be 100% or 0.1% – we can’t tell for sure with the incomplete data APSU is disclosing.

Despite the uncertainty about the the true COVID infection rate on the Austin Peay campus, that hasn’t stopped Austin Peay from scheduling more football games. The Governors have scheduled two road games after this week, one vs. Pitt September 12th and another vs. Cincinnati on September 19th.

This game could not have gone on if Austin Peay’s football program’s testing were simply the one implemented by the school. But the Governors enacted additional protocols above and beyond what little was required of the rest of the student body.

For example, every returning player was tested for COVID when they returned to campus, and required a negative test before they returned to campus. That was not the case for the general student population.

That’s not to say everything went smoothly at all times. In June, Austin Peay had to suspend offseason workouts because 11 football players tested positive for COVID.

To their credit, once the cluster was identified, they had a good plan – the players were placed in single-occupancy rooms and quarantined while they convalesced. The students were allowed back after they had received two consecutive negative tests during a 10 day span.

“They have been tested weekly since we returned to fall camp on July 31st,” I was told by a representative of the athletics department. “We completed another test today (Wednesday) and we will continue to do that through our fall schedule.”

That would be a prerequisite for scheduling this game against Pitt, as Austin Peay agreed to adhere to all the protocols that the ACC requires for non-conference football opponents, which require all players, coaches and support staff being tested weekly beginning with the start of the regular season. [UPDATE: Since this was published, the ACC announced that their requirements for non-conference football opponents were enhanced, requiring testing three times per week and at once in the 24 hour period before contesting a game.]

Is that enough to keep everyone in the football program safe?

This week, infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci recommended a much more robust testing plan than has been advocated by the CDC, the NCAA, and the state of Tennessee. “What we need to make sure we do, that we can adequately and effectively do, is strategic testing in addition to, and not in competition with surveillance testing,he said.

The type of testing that Austin Peay’s athletic department has chosen to perform with their athletes are “strategic testing” – performing a test once a week, and isolating and quarantining the infected. These tests are also known as RNA tests.

This doesn’t, however, cover the days where an athlete could be infected, have no symptoms, but spread the virus asymptomatically to other team members, staff members, or, if there isn’t a hard “athletic bubble” around the teams, family and friends.

Models of infection point to surveillance testing – say, testing every two days, even if it’s not 100% accurate – being much more effective in stopping the spread of the coronavirus than a less frequent strategic test that is 100% effective. “While they wait, people who are infected but don’t yet know it may continue to interact with others and spread the virus,” Robert F. Service of Science Magazine writes. “And if their infective period ends before they get their results, isolating them won’t help. ‘It’s like calling the fire department after your house burns to the ground,’ says A. David Paltiel, an operations research expert at the Yale School of Public Health. ‘You can’t play catch up with this virus.’”

Shouldn’t the NCAA offer guidelines that align with what science is telling us? Currently, it does not.

Though their “Resocialization of sport” guidelines do talk about the different types of tests, it falls critically short in requiring tests, or even a plan for testing, to be in place in order to resume sports. “Each institution should proactively and carefully consider how it will monitor and respond to potential cases of COVID-19 within the athletics department,” it reads. “Surveillance and testing are considered by many to be the foundation of a successful COVID-19 monitoring and management plan. However, the infrastructure and details that underlie any surveillance and testing plan will likely depend on the unique nature of state, local and institutional guidelines and will vary from institution to institution.”

The NCAA has punted the question on the frequency of testing to states. Tennessee’s governor doesn’t even want to release the data. The Department of Education does not seem interested in testing for COVID or even asking for any data. And the ACC isn’t insisting on anything more stringent than the NCAA’s bare minimums. So schools like Austin Peay are pretty much told they are on their own – they have to come up with their own plan that adheres to guidelines that don’t appear to align with current scientific thinking.

Austin Peay can accurately say they are following the NCAA’s “Resocializtion of Collegiate Sport: Action Plan”, because they are. There are no requirements for their testing frequency to line up with what scientists are saying, so they don’t. Austin Peay President Alisa White and the school’s board of directors could look at the situation and stop the student-athletes from contesting any games because testing cannot accurately detect a developing COVID outbreak, but they have chosen not to do so.

Similarly, the University of Central Arkansas is abiding by all state of Arkansas regulations on COVID testing before opening, which also does not require testing as a precondition to return to campus.

Similar to Austin Peay, without that initial round of tests, their school dashboard may not offer an accurate view of the real infection rate on campus, since all COVID testing is voluntary.

Though UCA benefits from a testing consortium with Conway Regional Health System – who is providing free testing for all Bear athletes – the testing data on their portal only shows data rolled up on a per-week basis and testing for incoming students is voluntary.

Since the first day of classes at UCA was August 20th, the only available report of testing data in between start of classes and the game is from August 26th, or only three days before the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff Presented by ESPN Events. (The last round of data showed 988 total cumulative reported COVID tests out of an undergraduate enrollment of almost 9,000 students, with a total of 23 positive cases.)

Like Tennessee and Alabama, Arkansas is hurting badly at the moment from COVID-19. With 22 reported deaths on August 26th, the state of Arkansas reported it’s largest single-day increase in deaths since the pandemic started.

And less than a week before Central Arkansas and Austin Peay are set to kick off in Montgomery, Alabama, Governor Asa Hutchinson, rejected a White House task force recommendation that Arkansas close bars and implement other restrictions to restrict the spread of COVID-19. He and state Health Secretary Dr. Jose Romero also “said they were concerned about the increase in cases coming from social gatherings where people aren’t wearing masks or following social distancing guidelines,” according to an AP report.

Though that’s deeply concerning, Arkansas’ weak in-state testing means it is difficult to know where hotspots might be. Arkansas’ state portal lists cases by county – Faulkner County, where the city of Conway and the University of Central Arkansas is located, listed 1,593 active COVID cases in the week leading up to the Guardian Credit Union FCS Kickoff Presented by ESPN Events. Though there have been no reports of out-of-control parties at Conway that I could find, parties have been proven to be the source of COVID outbreaks at North Carolina, Notre Dame, NC State, and Alabama. Adding to the challenge is that there is no statewide mandate to close bars in Conway.

Recently, Central Arkansas athletic director Jeff Teague disclosed that his team is meeting the NCAA’s resocialization of sport guidelines,” and despite the fact that Central Arkansas’ athletic department declined to answer my request for information, there’s no reason to think Teague isn’t totally accuate. Central Arkansas is meeting the NCAA’s paper-thin guidelines.

“As far as at a local level, we are able to meet the NCAA guidelines and there are many FCS programs that cannot do that,’ Teague told George Stoia of The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “The confidence I have is in our medical staff, our athletic training staff and our local hospital, Conway Regional, working with us and making sure we have assisted testing. I think we can model great behavior for our student-athletes, keep them in a quasi-bubble and help keep them safer than they’d probably be if they weren’t in a structured environment.”

I contacted UCA’s athletic department and Teague wrote me back with the additional protocols the team implemented. Like Austin Peay, their athletic department has internal protocols that go above and beyond the protocols required for the rest of the school. For example, all athletes and staff were required to get a pre-screening COVID test in order to return to campus for training.

Additionally, they spell out a comprehensive contact tracing program for athletes, and also have a plan that works with the school to isolate any positive cases. Like Austin Peay, any athlete testing positive needed to test negative twice during a 14 day span using the RNA test.

Central Arkansas had 5 positive tests from their original “gateway” screening in June and July, per Jeff Teague, and had 3 positive tests in the month of August, so the aggressive screening and testing have identified cases and kept members of the team safer. It seems like Central Arkansas has avoided a true outbreak so far.

But “keeping athletes in a bubble”, quasi- or otherwise, has been a challenge for football coaches for more than a hundred years, and in a state with such a high rate of infection as Arkansas it would be imperative. College football teams practicing in states with much lower infection rates than Arkansas have had coronavirus outbreaks on their teams, like Rutgers in New Jersey.

So the question remains – is what the schools have done enough? Certainly both schools’ athletic programs have gone above and beyond what their own schools are requiring for their own student bodies. Part of that is because both schools want to play lucrative games against Power Five FBS schools, and they need to adhere to the testing guidelines of those conferences. The OVC, Austin Peay’s conference, is allowing up to four of these games, and the Southland, Central Arkansas’ conference does not have any limits.

In the FCS Kickoff game, one thing for sure is that Austin Peay and Central Arkansas will get extra publicity for their football programs, programs who are very good at the FCS level. The Governors made a good run in the FCS Playoffs last year out of the OVC, and Central Arkansas is a perennial championship contender in the Southland. Though neither school gets a payout from the game, in normal years the FCS Kickoff has provided a bowl-like atmosphere and some good face time on TV for both schools.

But like everything else during this pandemic, any game contested is going to have an asterisk in front of it. The TV time might be guaranteed, but the sight that will greet viewers and visitors – 6,250 fans, at most, socially distancing in the cavernous Cramton Bowl – won’t be the bowl-like atmosphere of years past.

Austin Peay and Central Arkansas’ athletic departments have done what the NCAA has guided them to do, which isn’t much. They’ve done more than what their schools, and state governors, and federal government have set as requirements, which isn’t much. They’ve met the enhanced requirements to play games against Conference USA and the ACC, which is one RNA test per week and no surveillance testing. They have both had athletes flagged as having COVID during their time on campus, but have both had athletes recover, so many of their internal protocols have been tested and can be seen as working. It is possible they could have done more, but it’s hard to say they haven’t done enough, either. They’ve done what anyone in a position of authority has asked of them.

Risks

Despite the risks, both schools have decided that the risks are worth taking.

Practice is one thing; playing actual football games against another school is another. The players, who have been living in quasi-bubbles on campus, will now be entering a third environment in a third state, the Cramton Bowl.

They will be engaged in competing, breathing, and sweating on each other. Social distancing and mask-wearing during the game will be impossible.

Then they’ll travel, Central Arkansas to Birmingham, Alabama to play a game against UAB, and Austin Peay to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Neither will stop home at campus in between games. The equipment that was in the teams’ bubbles will have to be sanitized after the game. Both teams will get on a bus, go to a hotel, and stay and prepare.

All along the way there are people with responsibility who could have chosen to stop this game from happening, but didn’t. College board of directors could have come forward, but didn’t. ESPN could have come forward, but didn’t. State governors could have acted, but didn’t. The NCAA could have proven to actually prioritize athletes’ health and welfare over contesting over so much unnecessary risk and uncertainly, flying in the face of scientific experts, but didn’t. The current Presidential administration could have taken an interest in schools and COVID testing and reopening and resocializing sport, but didn’t. The ACC could have put in rules requiring effective surveillance testing before contesting football games with their teams, but didn’t.

We have no way of truly, 100% accurately knowing whether any member of Austin Peay or Central Arkansas will have COVID or contract COVID on the way to Montgomery, Alabama. After the game, all the athletes and staff will get one RNA test, administered by the host schools, before playing again the following week. That will be the only indicator as to whether the athletes can still play. But it will not detect if one of the players or staff contracts COVID in the time in between.

We hope that what the schools have done is enough. Because we’re about to find out.

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