Here's Why Medical Experts Say College Football Should Be Sidelined During Pandemic

The Clemson campus remains open in a limited capacity due to the coronavirus pandemic.  (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Experts say it's possible for athletes to play football safely during the COVID-19 pandemic — with the right protective measures.

But college football poses its own risks. With athletes attending class and living the freewheeling campus lifestyle, it’s a much more challenging prospect, according to leading Bay Area doctors and epidemiologists.

“The players are supposed to go to school, too, the last time I checked,” said George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at UCSF. “Locker room, games, practices, weight training, all that can be made safe through testing, cleaning, wearing masks, improved ventilation in weight rooms."

Even in a contact sport like football, the risk of transmission can be lowered if the game is played outside and helmets are outfitted with face-shields.

"But the wild card is what happens when they walk out into the general student body,” says Rutherford.

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With confirmed coronavirus cases inside major football programs like Rutgers and LSU, athletes are growing increasingly concerned about catching and transmitting the virus. Some are accusing league officials of failing to meet calls for improving safety measures, while exploiting the athletes for the economic gain of the school.

Players Go Public

Dissatisfied with how their universities have handled the pandemic, a group of a dozen Pac-12 football players threatened to opt out of the season in an open letter to conference managers, published over the weekend and distributed on social media with the hashtag #WeAreUnited.

“We are being asked to play college sports in a pandemic in a system without enforced health and safety standards, and without transparency about COVID cases on our teams, the risks to ourselves, our families, and our communities,” the letter reads.

The players say they've been communicating with more than 400 of their peers throughout the Pac-12, the Associated Press reported.

The players tied the actions to what they describe as the league’s failure to meet a broader range of social justice commitments. They demand that universities distribute half of the revenue generated by each sport among the athletes, stop requiring athletes to sign coronavirus liability waivers, provide extended health insurance and develop a social justice task force. In recent years, nearly half of Division I men's football players were Black.

“The lack of regard for our health and safety is central to the systemic racial injustices imposed by NCAA sports that disproportionately exploits Black athletes physically, academically, and financially,” they wrote in an email to league officials.

In a two-page response letter, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, agreed to speak with the players, Sports Illustrated reported.

In the letter, Scott said that player health is the league’s “No. 1 priority,” and “We support any student-athlete who chooses to opt out for health and safety reasons.” For players with pro football aspirations, opting out of a season could have enormous career consequences.

The Mercury News reported that players and the conference appear close on some matters and "galaxies apart on others."

Long-Term Health Risks

Brian Feeley, chief of sports medicine at UCSF, says the long-term health impacts of COVID-19 need to be better understood. By example he points to Eduardo Rodriguez, ace pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, who suffered only minor symptoms of COVID-19, only to be sidelined for the season due to inflammation around his heart linked to the virus.

“To be honest — as much as I love football, as much as I love college sports — my gut instinct is that we should hold off until we know more about the disease process and potentially even have a vaccine,” Feeley tells KQED.

“Sports are important," he says, adding, "They're not as important as your livelihood and your life. Setting people up for long-term disability when they're already inherently at risk from playing sports — it is not worth the risk at this time.”

Cassandra Lee, a physician and chief of sports service at UC Davis, agrees that with face shields, aggressive testing and other protective measures, the risk of coronavirus infection during the game is less. But she wonders if athletes kept up with their training during government-mandated shelter-in-place orders, and she worries about players getting hurt while competing in less than peak condition.

“These high-level athletes are working out, training hard and then they get the rug pulled out from under them in early spring,” she says. “We joke that we’ve all gained the 'COVID 20.'"

Dean Winslow, an infectious disease specialist at Stanford, says the NBA has demonstrated that contact sports can be safer for players with aggressive testing and isolation. The league built a quarantine zone inside Disney World designed to shield players and staff from exposure to the coronavirus.

“The NBA did it right,” he says, but questioned whether that could be replicated at universities and state schools with fewer resources and where college athletes are free to eat at restaurants, attend parties and drink at bars.

“In my mind, these are more significant factors for transmission than athletes acquiring infection from the actual sport,” Winslow says.