In an attempt for normalcy, college football programs have opened their doors for voluntary offseason workouts. For the first time since February, a sport seemed to be right on schedule and fans were given a glimmer of hope for a season. Like the NFL, college football intends as if the world will continue to turn.
That’s when swaths of players from Texas and USC to Kansas State and Clemson began testing positive for COVID-19 and schools hit the e-brake on workout programs.
Back to square one.
If the NCAA intends on holding a season, players, coaches, and staff are going to test positive for COVID-19– that’s the uncomfortable truth. The real question will be, how do schools (and the media) handle those positive tests?
Another uncomfortable truth is the level of player contracting the coronavirus; reactions would be different for a scout team player or special teamer than, say, a Justin Fields or Sam Ehlinger. A player who contracts COVID-19 would be treated like an injured player, and would be out for a guaranteed two weeks (possibly more). And though athletes in their 20s are proven to be extremely successful in recovering, God forbid the symptoms become severe.
Further, what would happen if outbreaks happen? With the contagiousness of the virus (measured by the R rate, or reproductive rate), it’s never just one player who contracts COVID-19.
Outbreaks will inevitably occur
So, take a hypothetical late-season matchup for example: No. 2 Ohio State hosts No. 6 Michigan. The winner of this game is in the College Football Playoff, the loser misses out on the Big Ten Championship game and goes home empty-handed. Michigan is looking to end their losing streak against the Buckeyes and Ohio State wants to continue their conference dominance.
On the Thursday before game day, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields and six defensive starters test positive for COVID-19; they’re out indefinitely but are guaranteed to miss both this week and conference championship week. All players are asymptomatic and are in great shape to play the game, but have to self-isolate to eliminate them from spreading the virus.
All of a sudden, Ohio State (-4.5) is a massive underdog (+6.5). Thousands of dollars have been bet on the game – talk about a bad beat. Should Michigan take this game, there will always be that asterisk next to the final score, at least in fan’s minds.
Backtracking to the Thursday before the game, say Michigan experiences a massive outbreak and 36 players and staff are forced to self-isolate, including 14 starters, head coach John Harbaugh and four assistant coaches. Is this a game that should even be played given the amount of personnel out? What about the rest of the team that may not have tested positive, but fall short of the incubation period and could still be carrying the virus? Would Michigan be forced to forfeit, or would the game be canceled? Further, Ohio State would face a difficult decision to risk even playing the game and infecting their own players.
Major upsets could be coming
Take another example– Akron visits Clemson Week 3 of the season, likely facing a 40-point favorite in the Tigers, minimum. However, Clemson is without nine starters and 24 total players, who are asymptomatic and self-isolating after testing positive for COVID-19 a few days after facing Louisville. Clemson has the firepower to win the game with their third- and fourth-stringers, but Akron has a very real chance to win the game and derail Clemson’s entire season.
Sportsbooks face a difficult task this coming season: key players testing positive for COVID-19 and missing games is nearly inevitable, and that could cause enormous last-second swings in point spreads and odds. As for bettors, the risk is very real. Positive tests could emerge as late as an hour before gametime, likely days after wagers are placed.
In a perfect world, cases are few and far between, and outbreaks simply don’t happen. In a perfect world, the season goes on as scheduled (in some capacity, whatever it takes) and games aren’t decided by which team has less COVID-19 cases.
But the world is not perfect and players, coaches, and staff are going to test positive for the virus. For today, we’re left with more questions than answers.