College Sports, Common Sense, and COVID-19: The Case for Fall 2020 Sports Participation

A Joint Statement from the Center for Pandemic, Disaster, and Quarantine Research and the Sports Administration Program St. Thomas University

July 27, 2020


The Center for Pandemic, Disaster, and Quarantine Research (PDQ) and the Sports Administration Program (SPOAD) at St. Thomas University advocate playing college sports this fall.

College presidents are ultimately responsible for making decisions on whether to hold sports in the fall. Like administrators at all levels of sport, these presidents face the challenging task of determining when and how to resume activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Recognizing the gravity of those decisions, and the fluidity of virus-related data that informs them, playing sports in Fall 2020 makes more sense than canceling sports outright or delaying seasons until spring semester.

While cancelations and delays garner significant media attention, the logic behind such decisions is questionable. The Ivy League canceled fall sports, yet currently plans to allow organized team practices and conditioning (with limitations).1 If the health and safety of students is the highest priority in canceling fall sports, as stated in the league cancelation announcement of July 8, and participation in sports endangers that health and safety – then why allow teams to practice or participate at all?

The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) made the even more curious decision to move college football from fall to spring semester, with a season start date of March 25, 2021. The delay is mostly toothless however, as the NJCAA plan permits football teams to practice from August to November, and to participate in three scrimmages during the fall. That effectively stretches the NJCAA football season from August through May.2 Again, the organization policy announcement stressed the importance of safety precautions in the decision, but why allow football players to practice and scrimmage, and why stretch the season from a little over four months to nearly ten months?

Why would entities as disparate as the Ivies and the JUCOs arrive at similarly inconsistent policies regarding the cancelation or delay of college sports?

Finances play a role. While no one should question that the health and safety of students is paramount for college presidents, multiple other factors come into play and the financial implications of lower enrollment numbers are significant. Christina Paxson, president of Brown University, stated in a recent New York Times opinion piece, “The basic business model for most colleges and universities is simple — tuition comes due twice a year at the beginning of each semester. Most colleges and universities are tuition dependent. Remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of our revenue.”3

The status and flush financial reserves of Ivy League institutions (none of the eight institutions has less than a $1 billion endowment) guarantees their survival even if sports are canceled for a semester. Still, allowing students to practice their sports – even when fall competitions have been canceled over health concerns – hedges the potential of students opting to sit out a semester and lowering an institution’s enrollment numbers. The financial cushion enjoyed by members of the Ivy League does not extend to junior colleges. That the NJCAA policy delays but does not cancel a season for fall sports and allows for much more liberal practice and scrimmage schedules, is not a surprising contrast from a financial perspective.

Instead of canceling like the Ivies or delaying like the JUCOs, full fall college sports participation makes more sense from nearly every perspective, including the health and wellness of students.

The Case for Fall 2020 Sports Participation

Here are three keys for a successful opening of college sports during fall semester:

Safety of students is paramount. We support adherence to the latest guidelines released by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, and the six criteria for reopening college football addressed in the forthcoming article College Football in the Time of COVID-19 by Baker, Edelman, and Holden. At the same time, we concur (at the college level) with this statement from the Sports Medicine Advisory Committee (SMAC) of the National Federation of State High School Associations that “it is essential to the physical and mental well-being of high school students across the nation to return to physical activity and athletic competition.”4

Risk cannot be eliminated. COVID-19 policies are intended to mitigate risk, not eliminate it altogether, and that is unlikely to change by the new calendar year. Current statistics indicate infection and transmission of COVID-19 appears to behave differently among young people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) figures ending July 24, of the 132,666 deaths attributed to COVID-19 in the United States, 167 of them (.001) were young people in the 15-24 age range.5 It is not discernible whether underlying causes were present in those cases. The reality is that COVID-19 risk for traditional college-aged students is not high in relation to the general population and is also low in comparison to other risk factors for that age group such as unintentional injuries, suicide, homicide, and cancers.6

Additionally, health risks other than COVID-19 must also be considered. Denying students an opportunity to live on campus and participate in athletics potentially leads to other problems. In a recent study of more than 18,000 college students by the American College Health Association (ACHA), 60% of students reported the pandemic has made it more difficult to access mental health care. The prevalence of depression among respondents increased relative to fall 2019, and a higher proportion of students reported that their mental health negatively impacted academic performance. Proximity to health services on campus, including mental health support, is likely superior to services students receive at home (especially for economically disadvantaged students).7

For conferences and colleges considering the delay of sports, there is nothing magical about a start date of January or March. Society is likely to face the same questions then as now because there is no guarantee of a vaccine or an elimination of the virus. The winter months also bring cold and flu season across much of the nation, so the risk of students getting sick may be higher than during the warmer fall months.

No single action or set of actions will completely eliminate the virus risk, but a return to campus and to sports participation, and the accompanying sense of normalcy with access to health and nutrition services along with screening and testing options, enhances rather than endangers the health and wellness of students.

College athletes deserve to play too. Playing sports during fall semester keeps colleges firmly in the societal norm. Parks and recreation facilities are open, youth sport leagues are widely available, and travel teams are practicing and playing. At the high school level, a recent survey of state athletic federations showed 45 of 50 states planning to play high school sports in season this fall. Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Hockey League (NHL), and Major League Soccer (MLS) have resumed play. All implemented mandatory screening and testing procedures (daily or every other day) for athletes and staff. Similarly, all have quarantine and return-to-play procedures in place (usually 10-14 days). They are all playing without spectators. The National Football League (NFL) intends to follow similar procedures upon its return, although the league’s position on spectators has yet to be determined.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), while leaving the decision to play to member colleges and conferences, developed standard protocols for practice and competition. These include daily screening for COVID-19 exposure and symptoms, and testing before competition. Positive results require quarantining. Appropriate use of facial covering and social distancing are recommended.

With virtually every other demographic participating in sports right now, why should college students face exclusion?

Delaying fall sports creates a multitude of problems. Any seasoned college athletic administrator quickly recognizes the logistical problems caused by attempting to play all sports in one semester. The list of potential issues is broad.

  • Facilities: Even at large institutions with robust sports offerings, many athletic departments share space and facilities among multiple teams. Perhaps the football, lacrosse, and soccer squads share the same field, or basketball, volleyball, and wrestling coordinate use of the same gymnasium space. The same concern exists for available locker room space. If all sports are “in-season” during the same semester, coordination of facilities will be impossible at many colleges. Some schools also rent space from local public park and recreation departments; with a crush of so many teams requiring access (in addition to the normal public youth and recreational leagues), the availability of such space promises to be dire.
  • Staffing and Event Management: If facility coordination figures to be challenging, staffing and event management will be worse. This includes concessions, tickets, event day staff, media relations, athletic training, emergency medical personnel, crowd control, parking attendants, public address announcers, play by play and live streaming requirements, laundry and locker room sanitizing and cleaning. Moving all sports into one semester essentially doubles the workload, and no colleges will double the staffs to meet these needs.
  • Officials: Staffing games with officials is already a challenge for many colleges and adding several more sports into the winter and early spring months will exacerbate this shortage.
  • Travel: While many casual observers may associate travel with luxury accommodations of the big-time FBS football and basketball programs, the reality for most college sports teams is much more modest. The availability of busses and vans for travel will get stretched thin during the span of January-early May if all sports are competing during that time frame. If social distancing guidelines preclude a normal number of riders, the problem will be magnified as will the cost of renting travel vehicles.
  • Class Attendance: At many colleges, particularly smaller institutions, student-athletes make up a high percentage of the overall undergraduate student population and they occasionally miss classes for away games; if all teams play in the same semester, class attendance may be dramatically low on certain days.
  • Condensed Off-Season: Using football as an example, the normal season runs from August preseason training through Thanksgiving. That leaves an eight-month offseason of rest, recovery, and conditioning. Pushing the football season to a March-May slot and leading back to a normal season in August 2021 would lead to a minimal amount of recovery time.
  • Multi-Sport Athletes: Multi-sport athletes will face a diminished opportunity to play more than one sport.
  • Forgoing Season: At high levels of competition, students are likely to forgo a spring season to prepare for professional careers

Conclusion

College presidents face unprecedented decisions on when and how to play sports during the COVID-19 pandemic. As they grapple with the challenge, it is our goal to provide a balanced analysis of factors to consider. Considering the available evidence, we recommend colleges play sports fall semester 2020 while adhering to commonly accepted safety guidelines.


Cited Resources

  1. Ivy League outlines intercollegiate athletics plans – no competition in fall.
  2. Junior college football season moving to spring.
  3. College campuses must reopen in the fall. Here’s how we do it.
  4. Knight Commission guidelines and considerations to reopen college sports;
    College Football in the Time of COVID-19;
    NFHS guidance for opening up high school athletics and activities;
  5. CDC Weekly Updates
  6. Leading Causes of Death
  7. ACHA Covid Survey Report

Additional Resources

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