Delay of game? College football emerges as coronavirus flashpoint

This fall’s college football season has become the latest flashpoint in the debate over the United States's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from Trump-Biden debate clash The Memo: Debate or debacle? Democrats rip Trump for not condemning white supremacists, Proud Boys at debate MORE and some Republicans have pushed for the season to start as scheduled in just a few weeks, echoing a campaign from prominent players and coaches who have argued it may be safer for college athletes to be on campus with university testing resources than back at home.

But major conferences have already punted the season until the spring, citing the uncertainty and uncontrolled nature of the virus, and some epidemiologists worry that the president is politicizing an issue that should be left up to medical experts.

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College football's fractured handling of the pandemic has in many ways mirrored the broader response in the United States. Trump has joined a chorus of coaches and players who insist the virus poses a relatively low risk to college students compared with the alternatives, while medical experts caution that a close-contact sport such as football could be a recipe for fresh outbreaks.

"There’s no national leadership," said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health at Georgetown University. "We do have the best public health agency in the world. The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] should be saying that college and professional football — given the enormous risks, given the fact that we have an escalating epidemic — that they should postpone the season."

"But because of the political chill to the CDC, we’re not getting that independent national advice," Gostin added. "So as a result, you’ve got each conference, each sport is making its own decision, and the public is justifiably confused."

The Big Ten and Pac-12 conferences have already postponed their autumn athletic seasons, including football, until spring, and the NCAA announced there will be no fall championships this year.

Still, the other three Power Five conferences — the Southeastern Conference (SEC), Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) — are holding out hope for a fall football season.

Trump this week thrust himself into the discussion, further complicating the decisionmaking process and the dialogue around it.

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The president is an avid college football fan. He has attended the annual Army-Navy games, and last year he traveled to watch the highly anticipated contest between Alabama University and Louisiana State University (LSU) as well as the national championship game between LSU and Clemson University.

"We want to see college football," Trump said Wednesday at an event on reopening schools. "And I don't know what they're doing with high school football, but I guess it's the same kind of a thought process. So we want to see that happen. And I think some of it will happen. To a large extent, it's going to happen."

The president addressed the topic again later that same day during a press briefing, saying he had conferred with Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and LSU coach Ed Orgeron, among others.

"I spoke to some of the great football players, college players," Trump said. "Trevor and lot of great players called. Coach called. Coach O. Lot of fantastic people I got to speak to. Athletes. Leaders. They want to play football. Let ’em play. Let ’em play."

Some Republicans and administration officials believe a regular college football season could benefit Trump politically, as it would reflect some return to normalcy during the pandemic.

But the president's approval rating on the coronavirus has dropped month by month since he saw an initial boost in March and April, and recent polling shows that only one-third of Americans trust the information he provides about the coronavirus.

The president asserted this week during an interview with Clay Travis that "you're not going to see people dying" if college football goes forward. But multiple players have reported having heart issues and other serious complications from the virus, and experts have noted that young people are not immune to the disease.

The sport is deeply ingrained in Texas, Ohio, Georgia, Michigan and other parts of the country that will play a key role in determining the outcome of November's election. College towns including Athens, Ga.; South Bend, Ind.; and State College, Pa., have already been hit hard by the pandemic and rely on revenue brought in during football season each year.

Former Republican National Committee spokesperson Doug Heye argued that if football is canceled, it may be a moment of clarity for some voters about how Trump has handled the pandemic, saying that "if now they can't go to football games," they may at last begin to blame the president for failing to contain the virus.

Steve Cortes, an adviser to the Trump campaign made the opposite argument in an op-ed this week, insisting that pushing for a season was a winning issue for the president.

"In fact, once the mostly-southern SEC and ACC schools pull off a safe and fun season of football, I predict Donald Trump will rightly earn the electoral support of many of the bitterly disappointed football fans in the upper Midwest," he wrote.

Public health experts have expressed confusion about how the conferences have come to differing conclusions on the safety of a fall season when reviewing the same data about the virus. One prominent argument championed by some players and coaches is that it would be safer for athletes to remain on campus where they have access to regular testing, team facilities and university medical staff.

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Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College at Emory University, said athletes are likely safer at home than playing this fall because of the close-contact nature of the sport and the lack of a centralized bubble to quarantine throughout the season. Pro leagues have used bubble settings to have players practice, live and compete in one location so they do not interact with potentially infectious individuals.

But if colleges are resuming in-person instruction, then playing football may not be much higher risk than living, studying and socializing on campus, he said.

"I think the real question is, is having students on a college campus too dangerous?" Binney said.

The uncertainty surrounding the fall college sports calendar is rooted in the country's difficulty getting the pandemic under control. The U.S. has more than 5 million reported COVID-19 cases, by far the most of any country in the world, and more than 167,000 have died from the virus in the U.S. Cases continue to spike in certain parts of the country even as others get their outbreaks under control.

"Every step we take back toward normality right now has a risk and benefit to it. Anything we do that increases contacts and opportunities for the virus to spread, like college football, makes it harder to do something else safely," Binney said. "So, what are you willing to give up if you want to have college football? Because there are no shortcuts here. We’ve got to do a better job as a country getting our arms around this."