Members of several Michigan State University fraternities and sororities have been ordered to self-isolate for two weeks after a coronavirus outbreak on campus. The Chancellor of Wisconsin urged students to “severely limit” their movements after more than 20% of his tests on students over the Labor Day weekend returned positive. In Iowa, where the fall semester is less than a month old, more than 1,800 students have tested positive, and there is a whopping 221 cases in the sports department alone.
It is against this backdrop that the Big Ten Conference, with the virus plaguing several of its campuses, reversed course on Wednesday and said it would play football from next month. Leaders at the conference, which just five weeks ago postponed the fall season to spring, said the science related to the pandemic had changed so much over the next 36 days that it was now safe to play.
The way the decision was made with hallelujahs in locker rooms, coaching offices, social media warrens occupied by die-hard fans and even at the White House – not to mention the kudos offered by several reporters on a conference call with Big Ten leaders – it might have looked like Jonas Salk had stood up and delivered a new vaccine.
Alas, a more apt picture is this: Conference presidents, dressed in flame retardant suits, order another cocktail as their homes continue to burn.
When Northwestern president Morton Schapiro was asked how, with the ban on living on his university campus and classes closed for the fall semester, it was appropriate for his football team to play, he replied. : “That’s an excellent question. “
He then made a quick effort to answer it.
“I tackled the problem, thinking that part of the campus is closed and that maybe you shouldn’t be playing football until the campus, hopefully, is open for the winter term, the first week of January, ”said Schapiro, chairman of the Big Ten Presidents and Chancellors Council. “At the end of the day I found the arguments that if we could do it safely we can play soccer and other fall sports, there is no reason not to do it .
It turns out that Schapiro was one of 11 presidents to overturn the original decision. This group included Rutgers chairman Jonathan Holloway, a former Stanford football player who told NJ.com last week that he was concerned about the direction of the virus next month and that the conferences push forward. Southeast, Atlantic Coast and Big 12 had revealed a distorted set of values. (A spokesperson for Rutgers said Holloway was unavailable for an interview on Wednesday.)
The science behind the decision, the conference said, centered on one element: the Big Ten’s ability to procure rapid testing capabilities, which it said would allow colleges to test their soccer players (and other fall athletes). The rapid tests, however, were found to be less accurate than the other versions. They may miss infected people carrying small amounts of the virus, producing false negatives, or detecting people at the end of infections who only have dead viruses, producing false positives. Daily testing could help eliminate these inaccuracies.
Commissioner Kevin Warren, who was fired last month for covering up the decision not to play in secret, pledged transparency on Wednesday. And then, a few minutes later, he declined to say who the Big Ten contracted with for testing.
When the Pac-12, another of the nation’s biggest conferences, ended football on August 11, just hours after the Big Ten, it at least cited three criteria for a potential return to the game: improved testing, more information about the virus. related side effects (including cardiac inflammation) and reduced rates of community infection.
The Big Ten have said they are addressing many of these concerns. In addition to daily testing, he said all athletes who are positive for the coronavirus should have a cardiac MRI scan. But these expensive machines rarely exist in college towns; the closest one to Penn State, for example, is almost a two hour drive, in Harrisburg, Pa. “Access would be a major issue if we said every athlete had to get one,” said Dermot Phelan, a cardiologist in Charlotte, NC, who is an advisor to the Atlantic Coast Conference, whose teams have already started. their season.
When it comes to community infection rates, there are no stated thresholds that would prevent the Big Ten from playing. James Borchers, the Ohio State team doctor, who led Saturday’s medical presentation to conference presidents, said the important metrics were the team’s positivity rate (among players) and the positivity rate of the population (players, coaches, staff). If players test more than 5% or the population rate exceeds 7.5% in a seven-day period, football activities must cease for seven days, the league said.
But John Swartzberg, professor emeritus of infectious diseases at the University of California, Berkeley, said broader infection measurements on campuses and communities should be essential in determining whether sports are played. Swartzberg, who said he was speaking for himself and not for the Pac-12 Medical Advisory Committee, of which he is a member, added: “Assuming the opposite essentially means that athletes live in a bubble that is completely independent of surrounding community. “
Of course, that seems to be precisely the goal of the Big Ten.
Right now, it’s a hollow exercise to wonder if the same testing regime created and offered to the Northwestern football team will be presented to the Theater Department or the Northwestern Marching Band – at least not. before they too make millions of dollars. in the television revenues that the sports department makes.
Instead, the Big Ten’s decision to play football this fall – just like those of other conferences that have already returned to the pitch – has exposed another coat of college football polish. What the pandemic has done is show even more clearly how it is high time to replace the term student-athlete with a more contemporary term: essential employee.