Anyone who wants to know why we won’t have college football this fall ought to sit in on their local school board meeting to understand exactly why.
Last night, I was drained after the second straight day of life-draining, dispiriting news in the world of college athletics. On Wednesday, the Ivy League said they were not going to contest sports in the fall semester, and would make a decision later whether to play them in the spring or not at all. Thursday came another seismic event – the decision of the Big 10 to go to an all conference schedule in football, putting tons of Group of Five and FCS schools in a horrible situation.
It was in the aftermath of that decision where I was called away from my Twitter feed to dial into the local school zoom call. I was hoping to get a break from the leaderlessness, uncertainty, and different sets of facts that seemed to guiding people’s decisions. I was wrong.
Education Itself Is In Turmoil
It is no mystery to me that I need to wear a mask outside the house. In case I was having doubts about wearing one, the governor of my state, Pennsylvania, has made it a requirement to wear masks at Pennsylvania businesses.
In our school district, however, there is no bigger debate as to whether students should wear masks. Though a majority say it’s a good idea, a significant, vocal proportion do not think so. One said he was going to tell his son to take his mask off “if he feels like it”.
This causes a dilemma for me as a parent. My son could be doing everything the governor asks when it comes to preventing the spread of coronavirus, but all of his efforts might be in vain as long as one as one asymptomatic kid does not.
But masks are hardly the only issue.
For reopening, in our school district there is confusion as to which health guidelines to follow. Some say the CDC’s, which recommends a distance of 6 feet between desks “when feasible”, is the right one to follow. Others have seized on the WHO guidelines, which recommends 3 feet (more accurately, one meter) between desks. Personally, I can easily picture a sneezing kid spreading virus 3 feet away; I have a much harder time picturing it travelling 6 feet, at least in a huge quantity.
Social distancing seemed to be agreed on by a majority, but there were plenty of problem areas that didn’t have answers. The cafeteria? Working on it, they said. School buses? No plan yet. Is it six feet, or three feet, or four feet? There was no consensus.
Every school district has some sort of “hybrid plan” that is more aspirational than definitive when it comes to running doen the risks. Some say a less densely-populated school is the answer – say, kids coming in on alternate days and learning from home the other. Others say if the school can make it to 85% capacity it might be good enough to have all kids go in every day.
Testing, too, seemed to be swamped in confusion. Some seemed to think that it was impossible to test everyone. Would swab tests, or other test, be required? The school administrators seemed to think a temperature check at the door – point a temperature laser at the kids – would be sufficient. Did they have enough people to do even this? That wasn’t clear.
It didn’t seem to me like the school wanted to talk about what might happen if (some cynics might sat when) a kid tests positive for Covid-19.
The CDC recommends shutting the school down for 3-5 days, have the school deep cleaned, then reopen. WHO didn’t seem to have similar mitigation plans in place.
Overall, it felt like our school district was cherry-picking the guidelines that made it most convenient for them to do the least, then implementing that.
In the end, I learned that school reopenings are a combination of people in their little school fiefdoms cherry-picking the data they wanted to believe, seemingly hoping and praying there would be no outbreaks, and not really having a plan that met either the shockingly loose guidelines of both the CDC and WHO. To be fair, this is not unique to our school district – versions of these debates have been coming out at all levels of American life. Sports is no exception.
In the talk about what is happening in college sports, too often people are assuming that the administrators running the show have any idea what they are doing.
Like me, they are looking at the health guidelines and do not see a uniform set of rules. We have a set of loose guidelines, one from America and one internationally, and we don’t have a leader championing one, the other, or a sensible marriage of the two. And we have a President that openly flouts the amorphous guidelines as they stand, politicizing them.
Each state’s health department is looking at the guidelines and making their own determination as to what they feel is safe. As a result, playing sports competitions across states means that you could be pitting the feelings of different state health departments what they feel might stop a coronavirus outbreak. One state’s athletes might have to wear masks; another may not.
Conference structures provide at least the possibility of having common guidelines across their membership, above and beyond what the states require. But there are inequalities between conferences. Some, like the Big 10, have very rich members and can set up expensive athlete requirements (like, for example, daily swab testing) that can be only dreamed of at, say, Western Michigan.
People running conferences cherry-pick the facts they want to believe. Some, like the SEC, want to ride things out as far as possible in order to avoid huge financial issues. Others, like the Ivy League, seem to be operating under different priorities and facts that don’t totally intersect with the SEC’s. As a result, the Ancient Eight doesn’t allow football to be played on campus for student health reasons.
Nobody seems to be able to articulate what “safe football” would look like. Every practice and every play violates all social distancing guidelines – offensive and defensive linemen literally line up facing each other, breathing and sweating, making contact every play.
In that sense, there is deep denial that somehow, “living with Covid-19” and football are at all compatible. The hotly-disputed, unproven “fact” that younger athletes can catch the coronavirus and be fine and/or not spread the virus to others is not something I believe.
And there seems to be no adequate plan, for schools or for athletes, that involves quarantining when an athlete during the season gets Covid. Even the CDC guidelines – contract tracing, shutting down operations for 3-5 days and undergoing “deep cleaning” – is impossible to follow during a weekly football schedule.
The NCAA, like our President, is completely absent when it comes to offering guidance to schools and conferences as to what to do. If anything, they are undermining the few precautions that can be made by their silence.
So it’s left to the states, and conferences, to squabble over what they’re going to do in less than a month.
It’s funny. I didn’t log into my school district’s Zoom meeting to get a better explanation of the depth of the crisis that is enveloping college sports, and why it’s happening. But I do, and it’s about something much bigger than sports.
Chuck has been writing about Lehigh football since the dawn of the internet, or perhaps it only seems like it. He’s executive editor of the College Sports Journal and has also written a book, The Rivalry: How Two Schools Started the Most Played College Football Series.
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