By Gavin Good
As questions raged throughout the sporting world this summer, while the NBA, WNBA and MLS played in a bubble, the college football world held its collective breath.
COVID-19 cases were surging across the United States, especially in Florida and Arizona, but unlike many other leagues and organizations, the NCAA had time to prep for playing in the pandemic.
In retrospect, it’s becoming clear that all of the time between the nationwide sports shutdown in March and the first games on Labor Day weekend didn’t go to good enough use.
Instead of investing in creating bubbles for various conferences and regionally connected schools, the NCAA went the MLB’s bubble-less route. As seemingly every team had positive cases spring up, while the NBA and WNBA had none, the warning signs were there.
And on college campuses, which play host to raging parties among hordes of young people, seemed set to be a prime breeding ground for COVID-19.
One-hundred and twenty canceled games later, here we are. There will probably be several more cancellations by the time this piece is read.
No conference has been immune, and dozens of programs have had their seasons marred with outbreaks ranging from several cases to 40-plus infections, like at Minnesota, which had back-to-back games against Wisconsin and Northwestern canceled, nearly endangering the Wildcats’ Big Ten West title chances.
As the MLB limped through its shortened, 60-game regular season, MLS ditched its bubble and saw nearly 20% of players test positive. The writing was on the wall even as athletes returned to campus from their hometowns.
Powerhouses like Clemson, which had 37 cases on its team in way back in June, Alabama and LSU quickly were forced to shut down team activities due to dozens of cases.
After deciding to play, then not to play, then to play again, the Big Ten went back on its initial rules to scrap a six-game requirement so conference heavyweight Ohio State could play in the Big Ten Championship, and then the College Football Playoff.
The Buckeyes had three games canceled, including a matchup against Illinois in Champaign that was scheduled for Nov. 28, as well as the annual rivalry game against Michigan.
Speaking of the Illini, it’s a minor miracle — made possible in part by daily saliva testing — that they have had just two COVID-19 cases among players and one announced case among staff.
After the Illini opened the season with an embarrassing, 45-7 loss at Wisconsin, they learned they had contracted three cases of their own, announcing before kickoff against Purdue a week later that starting quarterback Brandon Peters and reserve tight end Griffin Moore had each tested positive for COVID-19. Those tests, along with a case on the staff, forced Illinois to isolate nearly a dozen players due to contact tracing protocol installed by the Big Ten.
Thankfully, Peters and Moore recovered quickly. But Illinois will never know if it would’ve beaten Purdue with Peters, and perhaps the ensuing game against Minnesota — another humiliating loss, this time 41-14 — would not have been so ugly.
While Peters was out, the Illini cycled through three quarterbacks, beginning with Matt Robinson, who was quickly injured, calling fourth-stringer Coran Taylor onto the field as his replacement.
Isaiah Williams, who would have played after Robinson, was out for two games because of contact tracing, along with several other key Illini players, including center Doug Kramer. Williams helped Illinois to a narrow victory in a nailbiter at Rutgers before Peters returned in a dominant win at Nebraska on Nov. 21.
“We live in this world,” coach Lovie Smith said on Nov. 2. “As I see it, more and more positive tests are popping up everywhere. We’ll continue to talk to our guys about social distancing, washing their hands, keeping their masks on. We just hope that we continue to be lucky.”
After Peters returned, he praised the Illini’s daily saliva testing, which is conducted in addition to mandatory, daily nose swab tests in the Big Ten’s protocol. Detecting a lower viral load than in many infections, Peters tested positive via a saliva test and was quickly isolated, which he believed helped mitigate a team outbreak.
Even for Illinois, which has handled COVID-19 admirably by most accounts, uncertainty and anxiety about a possible outbreak has been a constant. Testing often is one of the best ways to combat the spread of the virus, but it won’t prevent people from being infected — it just lets us know when they are.
Without a true bubble, which would be a huge undertaking for the NCAA because of college athletics’ massive scope and varying institutions, COVID-19 cases have always been a part of the calculation to play.
“Guys don’t live in a bubble,” Smith continued. “It’s hard to trace it anyway. We’re constantly going over what we’re doing, and keeping players as safe as possible. Sometimes things just happen.”
Smith is correct, of course, that there was an inevitability of the virus that could not be escaped. It spreads with uncanny ease, and it is often detected more than a week after infection.
We’ll never know the full scope of the impact that playing a pandemic college football season — with thousands of inconsistently mask-compliant fans lining the bleachers in some places — had on the United States.
How many people got coronavirus from rowdy, partying college students fresh out of a game in South Bend or Tallahassee? With different testing and reporting protocols across the states, it’s quite possible that some areas are actually not detecting many of their cases.
There are tens of thousands of athletes risking their health, possible professional ambitions and the safety of those who they interact with for some time on the gridiron without knowledge of the longterm health effects of the virus.
It doesn’t only kill the old and vulnerable.
Jamain Stephens, a football player at California University of Pennsylvania (Division II), died from a blood clot after he was hospitalized with COVID-19 and pneumonia in September. He is believed to be the first student-athlete to die from the virus.
With more than 290,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, and more deaths are expected — by the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands — as the United States reels from the pandemic as winter sets in. On Wednesday, the country reported a record 3,157 deaths.
Sports are a privilege, a byproduct of a functioning society. History will tell of the time when America hit pause, and then resumed all too soon, unable to deal with the financial and entertainment vacuums sports’ absence would create. It won’t look upon us kindly.