The NCAA released new guidelines on Thursday for colleges and universities looking to resume sports in the fall. The big message: The outlook is getting worse, not better.
"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," said NCAA President Mark Emmert in a statement. "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."
Among the measures the NCAA calls for:
- Coronavirus testing strategies
- Physical distancing and face coverings whenever feasible
- Universal masking on all sidelines
- Daily self-health checks by all athletes and athletics staff
- Training outdoors whenever possible, and avoiding poorly ventilated indoor environments
The governing body says that when it released its first two publications on the subject in May, it had anticipated a downward rate of COVID-19 infection in the United States.
It included a graph that shows what the NCAA had expected when it made its earlier guidelines, and what has happened instead:
The new guidelines say a return to college sports had earlier assumed that national testing strategies and enhanced contact tracing, among other things, would be in place. Although testing and contact tracing infrastructure have expanded, "the variations in approach to reopening America for business and recreation have correlated with a considerable spike in cases in recent weeks."
The result, says the NCAA, is that testing must be a part of the strategy for returning to contact sports. It also notes the risks that returning to the athletic fields present: "group practice activities have the potential to significantly increase the risk of COVID-19 spread if proper distancing and/or masking practices are not implemented, and if air flow/ventilation is compromised."
It also notes that asymptomatic spread is a particular concern for NCAA sports: most of the athletes are young adults who may not show symptoms themselves, but can spread the virus to others who are more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Already there have been outbreaks of the virus among college athletes who returned to campuses for training.
As infection rates continue to spike across the U.S., college sports conferences are beginning to alter their plans.
The Southeastern Conference, which includes many powerhouse football teams in the South, says it will won't make scheduling decisions until late July.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said this week that "the fact that we have seen an increase of cases in the last few weeks across our region is not a positive indicator."