Members of several fraternities and sororities at Michigan State University have been ordered to isolate for two weeks following a coronavirus outbreak on campus. The Wisconsin Chancellor urged students to “severely restrict” their movements after more than 20 percent of its student tests during Labor Day weekend came back positive. In Iowa, where the fall semester is less than a month old, more than 1,800 students have tested positive, and there are only a whopping 221 cases in the athletics department alone.
It was against this backdrop that the Big Ten Conference, with the virus running rampant on many of its campuses, turned its course on Wednesday, declaring it would play football from next month. Conference leaders, who just five weeks ago postponed the fall season to spring, said the science related to the pandemic had changed so much in the intervening 36 days that it was now safe to play.
Alas, a more appropriate picture is this: The conference presidents, equipped with fire-retardant suits, ordered yet another cocktail while their houses continued to burn.
When Northwestern President Morton Schapiro was asked how it was forbidden for beginners and second-year students to live on the university campus and classrooms closed during the fall semester, it was appropriate for his football team to play, he replied: “That’s a good question. ”
He then made a brief effort to answer it.
“I struggled with that, thinking that part of the campus is closed, and maybe you should not play football until the campus, we hope, is open for the winter quarter, the first week of January,” said Schapiro, chairman of the Big Ten Council. of Presidents and Chancellors. “At the end of the day, I found the arguments that if we could do it safely, we could play football and the other fall sports, there is no reason not to go ahead and do it.”
As it turns out, Schapiro was one of 11 presidents who reversed the original decision. The group included Rutgers president Jonathan Holloway, a former Stanford footballer, who told NJ.com last week that he was concerned about where the virus was headed next month and that he was pushing forward from the Southeast, Atlantic Coast and Big 12 conferences had revealed a skewed set of values. (A spokesman for Rutgers said Holloway was not available for an interview Wednesday.)
The science that reversed the decision, the conference said, was centered on one point: the Big Ten’s ability to provide fast-paced testing features that it said would allow colleges to test their football players (and other fall athletes) on a daily basis. However, quick tests have proven to be less accurate than other versions. They may miss infected people carrying small amounts of the virus that produce false negatives, or detect humans in the tail of infections that have only dead viruses that produce false positives. Daily testing can help eradicate these inaccuracies.
Commissioner Kevin Warren, who was filleted last month for hiding the decision not to play in secret, promised transparency on Wednesday. And then, a few minutes later, he refused to say who the big ten contracted with for the testing.
When Pac-12, another of the nation’s largest conferences, pulled the plug on football on August 11, just hours after the Big Ten, it cited at least three criteria for a potential return to play: improved testing, more information on virus-related side effects (including heart inflammation) and a reduction in community infection rates.
The Big Ten said it addressed many of these concerns. In addition to daily testing, it said it would require all coronavirus-positive athletes to undergo an MRI scan. But the expensive machines are rarely found in university towns; the nearest Penn State, for example, is a nearly two hour drive away in Harrisburg, Pa. “Access would be a big issue if we said every athlete needed to get one of these,” said Dermot Phelan, a cardiologist in Charlotte, NC who is an advisor to the Atlantic Coast Conference whose team already has started their seasons.
In terms of infection rates in the community, there are no set thresholds that prevent Big Ten from playing. James Borchers, the team doctor at Ohio State who gave Saturday’s medical presentation to the conference presidents, said the important measurements are the team’s positivity rate (among the players) and the population’s positivity rate (players, coaches, staff). If players test above 5 percent, or the population rate exceeds 7.5 percent over a seven-day period, football activities must cease for seven days, the league said.
But John Swartzberg, an emeritus professor of infectious diseases at the University of California, Berkeley, said broader campus and community infection measurements should be important in determining whether sports are practiced. Swartzberg, who said he spoke for himself and not the Pac-12’s medical advisory committee, of which he is a member, added: “Assuming otherwise essentially says athletes are living in a bubble unrelated to it. surrounding communities. “
Of course, that seems to be just the point for the big ten.
Now it’s a hollow exercise to wonder if the same test regime set up for and offered to the Northwestern football team will be presented to Northwestern’s theater department or marching band – at least not until they also bring millions of dollars into television revenue. , as the athletic department does.
Instead, the Big Ten’s decision to play football this fall – like those of the other conferences that have already returned to the field – has removed yet another layer of college football veneer. What the pandemic has done is make it even clearer how it’s time to replace the term student-athlete with a more modern: important employee.