Medical experts: Plan for conference-only football has merit, is step in right direction

Scheduling flexibility, the mitigation of risk that comes with travel and the ability to share testing protocols were the primary factors behind the Big Ten’s plan to schedule conference-only games during the coming season, a move that may foreshadow similar decisions from other Power Five leagues and the rest of the Bowl Subdivision.

One other Power Five conference, the Pac-12, followed suit on Friday with an identical plan that removes non-conference games.

The matching plans exist under a significant caveat: that games are able to be played at all, an uncertainty given the continued struggle to rein in the coronavirus pandemic.

That dynamic looms over the FBS as teams prepare for the start of sanctioned practices, which can begin six weeks before the first game of a team’s season, according to a plan approved last month by the Division I Council.

Ohio Stadium won't be this full in the fall and will host only Big Ten games according to the conference's football plan — should there even be football in 2020. (Photo: Joseph Maiorana, Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports)

Yet the decisions made by the Big Ten and Pac-12 have merit, medical experts told USA TODAY Sports on Friday, providing a potential roadmap for the rest of the FBS even as the plan fails to completely address how to limit potential outbreaks of COVID-19 during the day-to-day interactions between teammates, coaches and support staffers.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” said UNLV assistant professor of health Brian Labus. “There aren’t many options, and this is one way to hopefully reduce the risk, yes, and still allow football to go on in the fall.”

For one, the elimination of non-conference games lessens risk by lowering the amount of interaction in an uncontrolled setting. In cutting multiple games from the schedule, teams are lessening risk by experiencing fewer instances of exposure.

“Removing any non-essential interactions, in this case three games, does lower risk,” said Robert Murphy, a Professor of Medicine and Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern and the executive director of the university’s Institute for Global Health.

Canceling non-conference games also eliminates travel into areas of the country that could be experiencing spikes in COVID-19 transmission, such as Arizona, Texas or Florida.

“As far as staying within your geographic region, the biggest idea behind that is that there are definitely areas of the country, even within a state, where you may not be in a hot spot,” said Jason McKnight, a clinical assistant professor at the Texas A&M University College of Medicine. “COVID prevalence may not be as significant in one area or geographic area as it is from another area.”

The decision to play a conference-only schedule will likely delay the start of the season from early September until later in the month, giving conferences and universities another few weeks to evaluate the best practices for handling testing and tracing.

This added time of experience will help conferences “figure out what works and what doesn’t work for them,” said Labus.

“It’s almost like delaying the start of the season, which is a really good idea especially given the way the cases are trending right now in the country and a lot of the unknowns we’re facing as we try and move into college and professional sports.”

Creating a routine testing protocol that can identify players who have not yet manifested symptoms can greatly reduce the subsequent number of players potentially exposed, said Deverick Anderson, a Duke infectious-disease doctor who co-runs Infection Control Education for Major Sports, or ICS.

“Prompt and as early as possible detection is an important part of the multi-layer strategy teams need to use to decrease the risk of transmission among players on a team,” he said.

However, the act of playing a conference-only schedule doesn’t address the spread of COVID-19 within locker rooms and football facilities, which since June has led to rashes of positive tests at several major programs and led many teams, most recently Ohio State and North Carolina, to indefinitely postpone all voluntary activities.

There has been a disparity in the number of positive tests from within the Big Ten footprint, with Ohio State’s postponement — one that left athletics director Gene Smith “very concerned” about the state of this coming season — joined by single-digit cases of COVID-19 at programs such as Michigan, which has seen just four positive results from the 514 tests given to athletes and coaches.

“Obviously, there’s still a risk from all those players and coaches spending a lot of time together,” Labus said.

And while remaining in conference can help streamline testing protocol, the geographic footprint of leagues in the FBS has been widened dramatically by expansion. A similar measure adopted by the SEC, for example, would eliminate Georgia’s rivalry game against Georgia Tech, teams separated by roughly 70 miles, but maintain the Bulldogs’ game against divisional rival Missouri, 730 miles to the west.

“I think it’s a tricky situation. Right now, programs and schools and conferences that are trying to make those decisions are trying to look two and three months in the future and know what’s going to be going on,” McKnight said.

“Honestly, right now, we’re not even sure what things are going to look like a week from now, much less than a month, two months, three months from now.”

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