In perhaps the most sobering picture yet of where things stand for fall college sports, the NCAA on Thursday released a series of guidelines for a potential return-to-competition amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amid all the protocols and possibilities, such as daily health checks and testing within 72 hours of competition in some sports, were some words that should strike fear in — or, hopefully, spur to action — those who care about the safety of our country and the reward of college football.
"Any recommendation on a pathway toward a safe return to sport will depend on the national trajectory of COVID-19 spread," Brian Hainline, NCAA chief medical officer, said in a news release on the NCAA web site. "The idea of sport resocialization is predicated on a scenario of reduced or flattened infection rates."
Those trendlines have been going in the wrong direction lately — something acknowledged again, bluntly, by the NCAA in a graph accompanying a tweet on the subject.
There are two key lines: The one showing a steep upward trend of confirmed cases per 1 million U.S. residents on average over the last seven days (about 700, per the graph) and the gradual downward slope of confirmed cases that the NCAA labeled "where we thought we'd be," which would be about half of where we are now and going down instead of up.
For an extra splash of cold water, here is what NCAA President Mark Emmert had to say in the release:
"When we made the extremely difficult decision to cancel last spring's championships it was because there was simply no way to conduct them safely," Emmert said. "This document lays out the advice of health care professionals as to how to resume college sports if we can achieve an environment where COVID-19 rates are manageable. Today, sadly, the data point in the wrong direction. If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic."
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the virus in recent weeks. Hot spots are developing all over the country — and particularly in regions where college football is king, as noted by Star Tribune sports editor Chris Carr when pointing toward a New York Times graphic.
Even with conferences punting on nonconference games to buy some time, college football basically has two months until the start of its regular season. Given that planning and decisions on whether or not to play will need to be made somewhat in advance of a mid-September start date, there is precious little time — maybe a handful of weeks — for the trend to change and college sports to even have a chance of being played in the fall.
Getting a better handle on the virus should be a priority for a million public health reasons above and beyond college football, but if this threat is what it takes to achieve better distancing and near-universal masking (at least, um, outside of Georgia), then so be it. A win is a win.
And it should be a simple path to victory. Other countries have done it, as that NCAA graph also shows. CDC Director Robert Redfield said it just this week: "If we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really think in the next four, six, eight weeks, we could bring this epidemic under control."
Otherwise, be prepared for a fall full of consequences — one of which very much looks like it would be a lost season of college sports.