A top NCAA medical adviser gave grim guidance Thursday to the nation’s college sports leaders: it’s time to consider scrapping the fall season.
“I feel like the Titanic,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, the executive associate dean of the Emory School of Medicine and a member of an NCAA coronavirus advisory committee.
“We have hit the iceberg, and we’re trying to make decisions of what time should we have the band play,” del Rio said during a call with infectious disease experts and the NCAA’s top medical officer. “We need to focus on what’s important. What’s important right now is that we need to control this virus. And not having fall sports this year and controlling this virus, to me, would be the No. 1 priority.”
Medical advisers for the Pac-12 Conference and the Big Ten called this week for competitions to be nixed this fall as new information is emerging on potential serious cardiac side effects of the virus, which continues to spread rapidly in many regions. The doctors also cited concerns about athletes traveling on commercial aircraft and the nation’s still-limited capacity for frequent, rapid-turnaround testing.
But the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12 — with footholds in virus-racked Southern states — are pressing ahead with plans to kick off in late September.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said “opinions vary regarding the best path forward” and that the conference is comfortable with its schools’ ability to provide structured training, rigorous testing and hospital-quality sanitation.
“There are a number of ways to approach complicated issues, and one of them is to sort of dip your toe in and see what happens. I think that’s what we’re seeing a little bit from the conferences that are continuing to try to play,” said Dr. Colleen Kraft of Emory University on Thursday. “But I do predict, because we’ve already been seeing it in those that have been very diligent, that there will be transmission and they will have to stop their games.”
For colleges to reopen, del Rio suggested communities should record fewer than 10 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, ideally with a positive testing rate under 5 percent and no greater than 10 percent.
“We simply are not there now,” del Rio said, noting that Georgia has recorded roughly 30 cases per 100,000 people and about a 15 percent positive rate for those tested. “We should really think about sports not as: ‘How do we get it done?’ But we need to focus our efforts on how do we get the pandemic under control.”
Under rules the NCAA’s board dictated last week, athletes must be allowed to opt out of playing if they are worried about getting sick and can keep their scholarships if they have one. The NCAA is also barring member schools from forcing athletes to waive their legal rights if they want to play.
Each NCAA division must also set out rules requiring schools to cover an athlete’s medical costs if the individual catches coronavirus and the infection is linked to sports participation. Member schools have to follow protocol the organization set out in mid-July as infections soared across the country.
“We’re moving into very troubled waters right now,” said Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer. “It’s a very narrow path to get fall sports right.”
The question is not just whether games themselves are safe, said Tara Kirk Sell, an Olympic medalist and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. It’s whether staging contests create an environment where people feel encouraged to congregate in a way that feeds outbreaks.
“It’s also public transportation, buses, trains, carpools,” Sell told POLITICO. “These are things that are really risky. And then you have people celebrating the games at a house party or a crowded bar, and we’re seeing a lot of young people getting infected at these social events.”