By KEVIN McNAMARA
Ok, ok, so everyone reads that click bait headline and thinks `hey, the college basketball guy is reaching a bit.’
Well, no, actually.
The American sports scene is all intertwined these days because COVID-19 is everywhere. The Hillbilly’s down South and the maskless science non-believers may not agree but the coronavirus that’s enveloped the United States for eight months now isn’t going away. It may not even be halfway over, if you listen to some infectious disease specialists.
But, thankfully, pro and college sports are working hard to compete on a safe playing field. The protocols in place are working but range across the board, from the NBA’s perfect Disney Bubble to the cross-your-fingers approach at Clemson, Alabama and other college football hotbeds.
There are problems, of course. The virus is all-powerful. Just ask the New England Patriots. Few dare invade Bill Belichick’s lair, but COVID cracked the code and infected new quarterback Cam Newton last week. The new case sent shock waves across the NFL, postponing the Pats big game at Kansas City for a day and necessitating waves of Covid testing in Foxboro.
Under NFL rules, Newton won’t be able to return to Gillette Stadium for a bit. If he is asymptomatic he can return once 10 days have passed or five days if he receives two consecutive negative PCR virus tests at least 24 hours apart. This opens a window for a Newton return for Sunday’s home game against the Broncos.
If Newton is demonstrating Covid symptoms, he can return after 10 days but only if at least 72 hours have passed since he last experienced symptoms.
Those are the NFL’s protocols, but here is why this case will be closely followed by the NCAA.
The NFL does not choose to isolate the entire Patriots roster, or at least those players (like expected QB Brian Hoyer) who come in daily, close contact with Newton. Robert Kraft and his owner friends, in agreement with the Player’s Association, feel that daily testing trumps a preventative quarantine lockdown.
That is not the case with guidelines that the NCAA’s COVID-19 Medical Advisory Group issued recently for the upcoming men’s and women’s basketball season. The group, which includes infectious disease and public policy experts, as well as team doctors and trainers, is prescribing a much more rigid protocol. Teams must designate Tier 1 individuals of players, coaching staff and other essential personnel, or about 25-30 people. Testing of at least three times a week is mandated and if any Tier 1 individual becomes infected, schools should consider quarantining the entire team for 14 days.
Perhaps most importantly at present there is not a recommendation for consideration of testing out of quarantine. So, for example, if a Providence College Friar player or assistant coach tests positive the PC program must shut down for two weeks. Needless to say if this happens in the middle of January, the Friars could miss several games so college basketball programs everywhere are viewing these protocols as a threat to the integrity of the upcoming season.
“Absolutely one of the biggest challenges we have in front of us is to figure out how to have a competitive season in any sport without major, major stoppages,” Oregon State director for sports medicine Doug Aukerman said on a recent NCAA video.
Is the NCAA correct, or over-bearing? If one player tests positive and is isolated from his teammates and the rest of the team tests negative for multiple days in a row why is a season shut down for two weeks? Why can’t PC and URI and Duke and Texas operate more like the NFL?
The answer is no one knows what is the best, safest, smartest route. Everyone is tip-toeing through the minefield here, hoping to keep their athletic industry alive while remaining COVID free. No one knows if a fool-proof quarantine even exists.
“I think sport is going to define a lot of the science of Covid-19,” Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s Chief Medical Officer, said on the same video. “It’s that versus where are we with the local public health officials.”
During a recent meeting with health officials, Hainline said “the most intense discussion was all about quarantine and can we really test out of quarantine?” He said that while many health officials might be satisfied with seeing negative tests on multiple days before the 14-day minimum, “the real fact of the matter is that some local public health officials are going to say it’s 14 days, no matter what. The CDC is at 14 days.”
Hainline was unavailable Monday to comment on the NFL’s protocols or if the NCAA is watching what happens with Newton and the Patriots or the outbreak that has put the Tennessee Titans’ season on ice. But it makes perfect sense that he is following any team-wide example on the professional or collegiate level.
“Hopefully through all the data we are gathering we are going to be able to guide where things go,” Hainline said, “but right now we’re at a place where we have to say it’s 14 days because that’s where our country is and we don’t yet quite have the science.”