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Concern rises over starting college football on time

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Wednesday’s announcement from the Ivy League could set the trend for fall sports.

NCAA Football: Texas Tech at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

A month ago, Texas Longhorns athletics director Chris Del Conte was still publicly optimistic about the possibility of 100-percent capacity at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium this fall as Texas governor Greg Abbott met with Del Conte and his colleagues to discuss playing games with half-full stadiums.

When Abbott held that meeting, he was continuing his aggressive push to fully reopen the state, which had avoided an outbreak like the one suffered in New York City that threatened to overwhelm hospitals. In the weeks since, however, Abbott had to shut down bars once again as cases spiked in Texas, along with states like Arizona and Florida. Austin may be less than two weeks away from hospitals becoming “severely stressed,” according to mayor Steve Adler.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, expressed his concern about those trends on Monday, calling the current situation “really not good.”

“We are still knee-deep in the first wave of this,” Fauci said. “And I would say, this would not be considered a wave. It was a surge, or a resurgence of infections superimposed upon a baseline.”

New cases around the country are now around 50,000 per day, the highest recorded so far during the pandemic. Record-high daily average infections have persisted now for four weeks.

Power Five conference leaders are increasingly concerned, too, according to a report from ESPN. Programs that kick off during Week Zero started mandatory workouts on Monday, with Texas and other programs set for Week One season openers scheduled to do so next week. A group of Big 12 athletics directors is still trying to determine the thresholds for canceled games.

The larger looming issue is that decisions about whether to schedule the football season as planned are approaching as programs hit that key six-week window of preparation. The Ivy League, in fact, is expected to push fall sports back into the spring on Wednesday, a move that some believe could impact the rest of the NCAA — the conference is considered something of a bellwether now after it was the leader in canceling its conference basketball tournament back in March.

“My suspicion is that the majority of presidents in the FBS are uncomfortable with the notion of playing football this fall but for various reasons don’t want to be the first to step out and say that,” a Power Five commissioner told The Athletic. “So, more than anything else, that decision provides the cover they need. I expect it’ll be a big domino.”

As Major League Baseball continues to move forward with plans to finally starts its season in late July, Washington Nationals closer Sean Doolittle reflected on Sunday about the role of sports in a country lagging behind other peer nations in slowing the spread of the virus.

“It does, like, bring to mind kind of where we’re at in our response to this as a country,” Doolittle said. “Like, we’re trying to bring baseball back during a pandemic that’s killed 130,000 people [in the U.S.] We’re way worse off as a country than where we were in March when we shut this thing down. And like, look at where other developed countries are in their response to this. We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back. Sports are like the reward of a functional society, and we’re trying to just bring it back, even though we’ve taken none of the steps to flatten the curve, whatever you want to say.”

Doolittle noted the surge of cases after Memorial Day and the politicization of mask wearing while admitting that he doesn’t know if it’s safe to resume sports — “I don’t know if that feels like a good idea or not,” he said.

As an Illinois football player publicly expressed his desire for an NCAA Players’ Association to help give student-athletes an organized voice to speak for them, a computer science professor in Champaign-Urbana predicted an infection rate between 30 percent and 50 percent of all college football players. His model forecasts between three and seven deaths as a result. A professor of medicine and infectious diseases at UAB agreed.

More than 30 percent of the Clemson roster has already tested positive.

New studies are finding that even asymptomatic patients show signs of lung abnormalities. Hospitals are now simply performing CT scans on prospective COVID-19 patients because the prevalence of such lung damage is the fastest way to identify someone who likely contracted the novel coronavirus.

The potential for so much long-term damage or even death from COVID-19 continues to raise ethical questions about playing sports in the midst of the pandemic.

Some countries and sports leagues have managed the pandemic well enough to return without a significant number of infections as a result — the fourth round of testing in England’s Premier League didn’t return a single positive result — but the United States is not one of those countries.

So the inability to start football on time may quickly become the consequence of not having a functional society.