Within the next few weeks, college football teams across the country will begin bringing their players back to campus to start voluntary workouts. For most of these players, it will be the first time they've been on campus since classes were moved online in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While teams are putting significant precautions in place to ensure the safety of their players and staff, experts caution that there is no way to completely eradicate the risk of contracting the virus at this stage. As if to drive the point home, the University of Houston suspended voluntary workouts Friday after six athletes were symptomatic and then tested positive for COVID-19.
Dr. Rand McClain, who has a sports medicine practice in Santa Monica, California, sees risk in bringing teams back to campus but also ways to keep the risk low enough that athletes and staff feel their health is being adequately protected.
“We're definitely increasing the players' risk, or anyone involved in the program,” McClain said. “It's not like this is a non-issue. We're making a choice and doing a risk-benefit analysis, I would hope, and the choice has been made to go ahead and take the chance.”
“There's no way to 100% protect yourself from getting the virus,” the doctor added. “No way to 100% decrease your risk unless you just stay locked up at home.”
As players return to campus to begin workouts, McClain emphasized that ventilation in indoor spaces like weight rooms will be extremely important. He pointed out that players breathing heavily, as they are likely to do during workouts, increases the chance of transmission – if any of the players working out is unknowingly carrying the virus – as viral particles are expelled from the lungs.
McClain said that to combat that problem, teams can implement social distancing procedures that require more than the usual 6 feet of space. Programs can also divide up workout times so only a certain number of players are in the gym at once, a step that Indiana and Notre Dame are taking. The Hoosiers and Irish will start voluntary lifting with no more than 10 people in a workout group at a time.
Ventilation is important because it keeps the COVID-19 particles from “pooling” in the air, according to McClain, and that can decrease the chances of getting a dose large enough to actually contract the virus. Indiana announced that it will be regularly checking ventilation and air conditioning systems and keeping doors open to ensure proper air flow.
“The poison's in the dose,” McClain said. “You may get exposed to the virus, but if it's not enough to overwhelm your system, you're safe. But ... if (someone) sitting next to you unknowingly has it and is breathing hard, without any ventilation and (the viral particles) are pooling there, then you have a much greater chance of ... catching the virus.”
Wearing masks – which Notre Dame will require during indoor workouts – is another way to decrease the chances of catching the disease, but that is unlikely to be a solution when teams begin to scrimmage later in the summer.
“Decisions are going to have to be made early on, 'Are we going to scrimmage, or are we just going to practice everything but live ball?'” McClain said. “In a contact sport, you can avoid contact to a certain point and still get in shape and do some training, but the ultimate training is the scrimmage.”
The solution for a lot of teams, including the Hoosiers and Irish, has been to implement a rigorous testing regime, in the hopes that by the time the players get on the field, everyone will have tested negative and transmission will be extremely unlikely.
Still, even if all of those precautions have the desired effect and keep the virus from circulating among programs, there is still the issue of players getting back to campus and trying to get back in shape too quickly after months with limited access to anything except body-weight exercises.
McClain said it will be important for players to slowly rebuild their strength rather than trying to do too much too soon.
“Even the guys who were diligent about training at home, putting in the work, certainly in contact sports, you haven't trained the same muscles,” McClain said. “Hitting one another, tackling, you probably haven't done a lot of the same drills (as you'd do in practice). My advice that I give to any of the athletes is, 'Do not try and get back to 100% right away.'
“As good as you may be feeling, you haven't trained like you would be prepared for a game, had you been in practice normally. So, ramp up. This is to coaches, too, don't expect players to be 100%.”
Ultimately, McClain said that playing this season might not be worth the risk for younger players. The calculus could change if a player is a senior and this is his last season in the program or he's trying to make an impression on NFL scouts. Of course, the desire to not “let down” teammates by sitting out the season will be strong, as well.
“If I'm a freshman football player's dad, I'm saying, 'Hey, redshirt, it's not worth it,'” McClain said. “Even if you're a potential pro ballplayer down the line, let's wait a year, presumably we'll have treatments or a vaccine next year, we'll have more options to avoid this.
“Because, look, even if we're talking about guys who are in the best physical condition, least risk category, young, in shape, no co-morbidities ... even if he's not killed by it, even if he's not severely ill, we don't know if moderately ill people will have lung damage down the line, we just don't know enough.”