Despite Optimism, Football Must Clear Hurdles to Return

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Across the country, NCAA schools are preparing to welcome student-athletes back to their facilities for voluntary workouts, which the association said could resume on June 1. 

But if college football is to return in the fall, institutions must have a plan for managing the coronavirus safely — and that particular sport presents a particular challenge.

“I think football is more challenging than any of the other fall sports by far, and perhaps more than any other sport,” said NCAA chief medical officer Dr. Brian Hainline told the Columbus Dispatch

After all, in football, competitors must be in physical contact with one another, line-up mere inches apart and be able to breathe heavily and call out signals. None of that makes it easy to limit transmission.

Still, officials remain hopeful that football could return in the fall. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said in a conference call last week that while he’s not “100 percent comfortable yet” with the idea of football in the fall, he’s hopeful that professionals could create an environment where it would be safe.

“I think we have to be sensitive to the fact that our medical experts — not athletic directors or commissioners or anybody else — have to give us the proper environment, and operations in that environment, that will allow us to play the game,” Smith said. “We haven’t had that in-depth conversation. Frankly it’s still a little early because we still are studying the virus.”

Meanwhile, doctors interviewed by the Dispatch provided some suggestions for creating such an environment. Ideas included disinfecting footballs, disallowing shared water bottles, and providing players with clear plastic face shields to limit the spread of respiratory droplets. 

“There’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all type decision that you can make,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins and member of the NCAA’s coronavirus task force told the Dispatch. “I do think there’s going to be a non-zero risk of transmissions, and for individuals who cannot tolerate that risk or have risk factors for severe disease, it probably does not make sense for them to play football.”

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