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Cancel college golf? You must be joking

Cancel college golf? You must be joking
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The Big Ten and the Pac-12 have “delayed” (a.k.a. cancelled) fall sports, an effective one-size-fits-all stay-off-the field order for these student-athletes, due to COVID-19. Intercollegiate sports at numerous institutions are threatened this fall, with winter and spring sports likely in jeopardy as well. 

Among college sports, men’s and women’s golf is ideally suited to have a normal season of competition in these abnormal times. The Professional Golf Association was one of the first professional sports to reopen competition and have demonstrated that it is possible to remain infection-free for extended periods. Golf is played outdoors, which is considered a safer environment to reduce virus transmission. Although college golf is played on teams, it is an individual sport, making it easier to physically distance, both during practice and in competition. Summer amateur golf tournaments like the Western Amateur and the U.S. Amateur all went off without any hitches, and just two infections. With most of their entrant’s college golfers, these student-athletes have demonstrated they can adapt to the new normal and participate while staying infection-free.  

The threat of infections to all students on campus depends on the safeguards put in place by university administrations. Frequent testing, face covering requirements, physical distancing and hand hygiene will be the new normal. All students have a vested interest in keeping infection rates low, or in-person education will quickly dissolve with any surge in new cases, resulting in classes moving online. Student-athletes are even more motivated to stay infection-free. Athletic departments have taken their playbook from professional leagues to institute team bubbles to protect their student-athletes. Summer workouts have demonstrated that such bubbles are transferable to college campuses. Most importantly, once student-athletes bought in, all indicators were that they worked.  

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The most recent development that created a veil of uncertainty with intercollegiate sports was the threat of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, typically caused by a viral infection, which includes COVID-19 and some common cold coronaviruses. Left undiagnosed and untreated, it can lead to heart failure when an afflicted physically person exerts himself or herself. The uncertainty surrounding this condition was the driver for the Big Ten and the Pac-12 halting all intercollegiate competition this fall.  

Are student-athletes at more risk of COVID-19 infection than other students on campus? Given the bubbles created for college athletic teams, student-athletes are likely at less risk of infection than other students. However, since student-athletics undergo sustained physical exertion, both in practice and during game play, then myocarditis may present a real threat.   

Limited information reported so far suggests that the condition is rare. Many students on campus partake in vigorous exercise, be it running, weight training and/or team sports. To avert poor outcomes amongst all students, will universities require those who have tested positive to be screened for this rare condition? Clearly, such screening can be done for all student-athletes, though widespread screening would be prohibitively expensive, and imprecise, given the rarity of the condition. Anyone, student-athletes or students in general, should not undertake sustained physical exertion for an extended period until they recover.    

Given that golf does not require sustained physical exertion, this makes these athletes at low risk of complications of myocarditis. Of course, the best way to reduce this added risk is to keep everyone infection free, which team bubbles are designed to achieve. 

How much risk would there be in Division I men’s and women’s college golf if the season progressed as planned with a full slate of tournaments? There are  301 men’s teams and 270 women’s teams, with a season that runs from August through May. Then to reach a risk of one COVID-19 fatality would require an infection rate of 37 percent for men’s golfers and 99 percent for women’s golfers.  

Given that infection rates at this level are highly unlikely and unrealistic to expect, there is no reason to cancel intercollegiate golf competition this year, even surrounding the shroud of uncertainty with myocarditis. The ACC has already cancelled college golf, which makes no sense, given the environment around which golf is played and the risks associated with COVID-19. Any decision to cancel intercollegiate golf has more to do with perception and politics, than risk and reality.               

Sheldon H. Jacobson, PhD, is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk assessment to evaluate and inform problems in public policy and public health.