COVID-19 is surging in Big Ten football locker rooms and in the states that the conference’s universities serve. Conference officials should cancel what’s left of the 2020 season not just to protect student-athletes and staff but to prevent team outbreaks from spreading to the broader community.
This week, the University of Minnesota announced that 47 Gophers football players and staff have tested positive for the virus since Nov. 19, causing the team to cancel a second consecutive game. The number infected is about 30% of the program’s personnel. This appears to be the biggest Big Ten football outbreak so far, but that could change rapidly without responsible action by conference officials.
Clearly, the testing, social distancing and “stringent medical protocols” the conference touted to justify resuming play after initially deciding to delay the season are inadequate. There’s been only one week since the condensed season’s late October start when the virus hasn’t forced cancellation of at least one game.
To its credit, the Big Ten put in place more rigorous restrictions than other conferences. But recent remarks made by Gophers coach P.J. Fleck during a radio interview suggest how difficult it is to defend against the virus. Walling off players is not realistic.
“These are student-athletes. They live in dorms. They are around 55,000 other students somehow, some way, even if the class is virtual,” Fleck told KFAN.
In an e-mail to an editorial writer, Paul Rovnak, director of communications for Gophers athletics, also stressed the rigor and diligence of the team’s infection control efforts. Said Rovnak: “Our recent situation with football is not a result of anyone doing anything wrong. The virus just found a way in.”
The pair’s comments make a strong case for canceling the rest of the season. No screw-ups are required for a team outbreak to happen. Even the best measures and intentions aren’t fail-safe. Given how seriously ill COVID can make people and how much is unknown about its long-term risks — including possible heart damage among athletes — the most responsible course of action is to stop the season.
The Gophers now have just one regular-season game left, plus a Dec. 19 divisional crossover game. Although the Gophers appear to have more COVID cases than the rest of the league’s teams, by shutting down the entire conference now and canceling the postseason the Big Ten would send a strong and educational message that the risks vastly outweigh any rewards of playing on.
It’s also critical to note that the virus could spread from football programs to the broader communities in which schools are located. The nation is in the midst of an alarming surge of COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
The Minnesota Department of Health has “not identified any community cases associated with the Gopher football team, but that doesn’t mean we might not in the future,” a spokesman said on Tuesday.
Dr. Dan Diekema, director of the division of infectious diseases at University of Iowa College of Medicine, had lauded the conference’s August decision to postpone football. When the conference reversed course a month later, he was critical and told NBC News it was not safe to play.
“Nothing has happened since I gave that interview that would change my view — in fact the COVID-19 activity across the Midwest (and in other areas of the country) has worsened considerably, making it even more problematic,” Diekema told an editorial writer this week.
The same COVID concerns apply to college basketball. Although those programs are smaller, they play inside and schedule more games. The Big Ten and other conferences should be ready to react quickly if cases surge in basketball programs. With COVID vaccines rolling out soon, there is an end in sight to this pandemic. Cancellations, delays and other protective measures from the Big Ten and other conferences are the responsible course of action until the virus is under control.