December 12, 2020

Saturday Night Football During COVID-19: Less Beer, More Masks

By Chris Katsaros and Charles Tharpe

For the first time since 1906, the Wisconsin Badgers and Minnesota Golden Gophers football teams will not play each other. Minnesota canceled the Nov. 28 game after a COVID-19 outbreak on its team.

Brendan O’Brien, a reporter for the Minnesota Daily, the school newspaper, said the rivalry is “nice for a lot of students [and] faculty, for both schools really, to really go and make a weekend out of it.”

“It’s definitely going to be weird Saturday with Thanksgiving weekend and not having the game, but that has just been this year in general.”

O’Brien said, “I think what everyone is pointing at is that bringing the season back in late October like [the Big Ten] did and having the Big Ten Championship Game coming up in about 3-4 weeks now–they really don’t have any margin for error once you lose a few games.”

“It’s not a great situation for a team like Wisconsin because it pretty much effectively ended their chances, but at the same time I think there is something to be said about still wanting to try to keep some level of safety among student athletes and I think if there is any year to be a little bit more understanding about not being able to play in a Big Ten championship game I think it’s this year.”

Ohio State canceled its Nov. 28 game against the University of Illinois after head coach Ryan Day and several players tested positive for the virus. Two weeks later, the historic Oho State-Michigan rivalry was sent to the sidelines by the pandemic.

Dashboard: COVID-19 tests and cases at Big Ten schools

Most recently, the Dec. 5 game between Northwestern and Minnesota was canceled as the Golden Gophers continue to experience an outbreak on their team.

The New York Times has provided a tracker to search for the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases at over 700 universities. This data was last updated Nov. 19, however it is updated periodically.

As of Nov. 19, the total number of cases for the other Power Five conferences is as follows: SEC with 33,702 confirmed cases, Big-12 with 15,804 confirmed cases, ACC (including Notre Dame for this season) with 20,362 confirmed cases, and Pac-12 with 14,057 confirmed cases.

It is important to note that the total data provided for the other four major conferences is over a week older than the data for the Big Ten. It is also worth mentioning that cases of COVID-19 are spiking in almost every state, so reported cases may change at a non-linear rate.

However, it is still clear that the Big Ten and SEC have far more confirmed cases than the SEC, ACC, and Pac-12. This can be due to state restrictions being more strict based on region, or universities deciding on whether classes will be fully online, partially online, or in person. 

Though these numbers provide context to the size of the COVID-19 outbreaks at universities, it does not necessarily correlate to the football teams. While Wisconsin and Ohio State both reported several thousand cases on their campuses, Minnesota and Maryland (schools that have also reported outbreaks on their football teams, and in Minnesota’s case the largest confirmed outbreak yet) have less than 1,000 confirmed cases. 

According to University of Illinois at Chicago’s Associate Director Fellowship in Sports Medicine, Dr. Terry L. Nicola, college athletes are not being exposed to COVID from teammates, they are being exposed off the field. 

“It’s not because they’re catching [COVID-19] on the field. It’s coming from the outside. They’re [college athletes] not living in a bubble,” Nicola said. “It’s very possible to not catch this disease. It’s extremely possible, not even difficult to defeat this disease, but we’ve made it to this mess.” 

However, the largest number of COVID-19 cases per capita on a Big Ten campus belongs to Penn State University, which has 105.54 cases per 1,000 students. Ohio State, the university with the most confirmed cases, ranks fourth in cases per capita, with 94.53 cases per 1,000 students.

Northwestern University has the lowest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 491 as of Dec. 13. Northwestern ranks tenth in cases per capita, with 22.37 cases per 1,000 students.

Of the four Big Ten universities with the lowest cases per capita–Northwestern, Maryland, Minnesota, and Rutgers–Northwestern has the smallest enrollment, with only 21,946 students. This is compared to 40,743 students at Maryland, 51,327 students at Minnesota, and 50,173 at Rutgers.

In total, the Big Ten had 41,422 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Dec. 13, an average of 68.13 cases per 1,000 students.

The Medical Effects of Playing Football in a Pandemic

The medical task force of the Big Ten’s goal is “to be able to be data driven; to be able to access appropriately,” Dr. James Borchers, Ohio State’s football head physician, said in a Oct. 23 press conference, “to be able to provide repetitive surveillance through testing, and ultimately to provide the health and safety guidance that is needed to help these student athletes return to competition.” 

The Big Ten required all student athletes, coaches, trainers and other individuals to undergo daily antigen testing. Players that test positive for COVID risk the injury of cardiac registry.

Nicola said that the biggest concern for athletes who contract COVID-19 is the lasting effects it can have on your heart. 

“There’s something that’s really dark or ominous that is not discussed–the myocarditis,” he said. “This virus, unlike the flu, really hits the vasculature.  It’s not about inhaling this and your lungs become inflamed–it actually gets through the vessels” 

In addition to being an Associate Director in Fellowship in Sports Medicine, Nicola is also an Associate Professor of Clinical Rehabilitation Medicine at University of Illinois College of Medicine. He said he believes that the recovery process for college athletes that contract COVID-19 will be difficult. 

“The biggest concern for athletes [who test positive for COVID-19] is if you do an MRI of the heart and you see scars, if you’re a division one college athlete, division three even–you’re not an athlete anymore after you get this disease, like you were [prior to contracting COVID-19],” he said.

“With an athlete, it has an immediate effect because we use every last bit of your heart function.” Nicola said, “I was a marathon runner. I can guarantee that if I was at the top of my game, and then got COVID, I can say with my gut (without any academic research)…I would be shocked if I could ever reach my marathon time again after getting COVID.”

Nicola said he thinks that with 100,000 new cases each day in the United States, the chances of being exposed to COVID-19 are very likely. These recent numbers are why he thinks that regulating the social lives of collegiate athletes is necessary. 

“The students should live in a quarantine situation for the season,” he said. “They have not.  If they were all taking the saliva test and kept testing negative, that will keep them from getting infected. They are not regulating their social lives for this season.”

As the winter season approaches, indoor sports such as basketball plan on returning with new COVID guidelines to follow. Nicola said he thinks that basketball players should take more protective measures as basketball is indoors, which heightens their chances of getting COVID-19. 

Nicola, like many other medical professionals, is stressing the importance of wearing masks and social distancing to calm the “forest fire”, an analogy to which he compared this pandemic. 

“Here’s what we know–we know that masks work, that if two sides are wearing them and if you go by the rules for long enough,” he said,  “what’s really sad is that within one and two months, we could’ve had this infection under lockdown.” 

How Did We Get Here?

On Aug. 11, the Big Ten voted to postpone fall athletics due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Commissioner Kevin Warren mentioned that the conference was prioritizing the “mental and physical health and welfare of our student-athletes” in their official statement.

In making its decision, which was based on multiple factors, the Big Ten Conference relied on the medical advice and counsel of the Big Ten Task Force for Emerging Infectious Diseases and the Big Ten Sports Medicine Committee.”

The decision to postpone the college football season was met with both criticism and understanding among the various universities in the conference. However, just over a month later on Sept. 16 the Big Ten released a new statement noting their intention to resume the football season on the weekend of Oct. 23-24.

The COP/C voted unanimously to resume the football season starting the weekend of October 23-24, 2020. The decision was based on information presented by the Big Ten Return to Competition Task Force, a working group that was established by the COP/C and Commissioner Kevin Warren to ensure a collaborative and transparent process.”

Since this press conference, Big Ten football teams have had over 60 positive COVID-19 cases, and there has been at least one game canceled every week since the second week of the season. 

This stretch of outbreaks began with Wisconsin in October with 27 positive cases. Maryland followed with 8 positive cases, and this week Minnesota has been forced to cancel games for the next three weeks as they reported 40 COVID cases. 

Warren said that student athletes and viewers needed to “adapt” and “show flexibility” in reference to the start of the 2020-21 football season. 

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