Epidemiologist reviews college football season to this point

October 31, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's quarterback Jeff Sims (10) runs with the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, October 31, 2020. Notre Dame won 31-13 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
October 31, 2020 Atlanta - Georgia Tech's quarterback Jeff Sims (10) runs with the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game at Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, October 31, 2020. Notre Dame won 31-13 over the Georgia Tech. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

At the end of July, Zach Binney had concerns about the viability of a college football season. An epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University and a sports fan, Binney had questions about COVID-19 outbreaks on college campuses could infect athletes.

He also had doubts about how effective the testing would be at keeping infectious players off the field and away from opponents.

“I’m pessimistic about the possibility of college football,” he said in an AJC story published Aug. 1.

On the 11th of that month, his doubts were founded when the Big Ten and Pac-12 both postponed their season, leading to wide speculation that all of college football would follow suit.

More than three months later, the season has almost made it to Thanksgiving, with more than 350 games in the books before Saturday’s slate, and medical professionals, athletic directors, coaches and teams are desperately trying to reach to the finish line. With Saturday marking the completion of the 12th week of games, there are four more weeks until college football’s regular-season schedule will be complete.

On the other hand, the Saturday-morning postponement of the Clemson-Florida State game was the 81st of the season, and the trend is not encouraging.

Binney’s perspective on the season?

“Could have been better, could have been worse,” Binney said. “They have managed to muddle through.”

To this point, it would seem the worst fears have not been realized. It was in May that Dr. Anthony Fauci called football “the perfect setup for spreading” the virus. Thanks to ramped-up testing and other safety protocols, the large majority of games have been played, apparently safely.

Heightened testing protocols surely have had a hand. With the ACC, SEC and other leagues increasing weekly testing from once to three times a week before the start of the season, the probability of an infectious player slipping into a game (or practice) likely has been reduced significantly.

If team-to-team spread has occurred – a great concern before the season – it has been minimal. While large-scale data for the college game is hard to come by, Binney said that he was aware of three potentially infectious NFL players who had gotten onto the field for a game.

“I am not aware of any spread from those three people,” he said. “But that is a very small sample size.”

The benefits of playing are obvious. Players have been able to participate in a game they love. Communities of fans have engaged their passion for college football during a year that surely has needed such outlets. Athletic departments have been able to generate the revenue that thousands of college athletes count on for scholarships and thousands of industry workers likewise need to remain employed.

It can be reasonably argued that, on the whole, athletes are safer within the structures of their teams than they would have been otherwise. To this point, no FBS player has died from an infection. At Georgia Tech, at least, having Bobby Dodd Stadium at 20% capacity has not proved a health hazard, according to the school.

“According to our director of health services, campus testing data does not show our games as a significant source of Covid-19 cases among our students, faculty or staff,” institute spokesman Blair Meeks wrote in an email.

On the other hand, while conference officials expected games to be postponed, 81 games that have required postponement or cancellation represents many instances where the virus has wreaked havoc on programs.

“We don’t have as much transparency (as the NFL) around exactly how many cases there have been, but we have certainly seen outbreak after outbreak after outbreak,” Binney said.

The final few weeks may be the most challenging. As Thanksgiving approaches, the health numbers are going in the wrong direction, as they are nationally.

There were 18 games canceled or postponed this week out of a total of 62, or a 29% rate, including Tech’s game at Miami. Last week, including Tech’s home game vs. Pittsburgh, it was 15 out of 59 (not counting the Cal-UCLA game arranged after two other Pac-12 cancellations). That’s a two-week total of 33 out of 121 (27%).

In the two weeks before, 13 of 105 games (12%) were canceled or postponed.

Simply from a logistics standpoint, the probability of teams playing full seasons has grown increasingly doubtful. Tech, for instance, is booked solid with four games through Dec. 19. Having started late, the Big Ten and Pac-12 have no wiggle room for makeup games.

Binney won’t be surprised if the postponements and cancellations increase as national public-health numbers worsen. The approach of winter, which will bring more people inside, won’t help.

“(College football is) a part of this country, part of this society,” Binney said. “There’s more virus elsewhere, there’s going to be more in college football and that’s going to cause more outbreaks and force more postponements and cancellations.”

From a broader public-health perspective, Binney questions the wisdom of continuing, though there seems little doubt that industry leaders will continue to stage games until the situation becomes unfeasible.

“I would probably advocate for just shutting the whole thing down as we should be shutting down as many non-essential gathering opportunities as possible,” he said. “And I think college football falls under that category for me. Other people may disagree, because it’s not just a scientific question, it’s a question of values.”

Beyond health to football teams, coaches and staff, Binney pointed out that games are often drawing thousands of people to stadiums, as well as fans congregating at bars or homes. Binney said that that doesn’t mean banning anything that brings people together, but “I think college football has to reckon with its role in that, as well, which is probably driving spread in the community.”

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