NCAA releases coronavirus testing guidelines while noting 'the data point in the wrong direction' for fall sports

Nick Bromberg
·4-min read

The NCAA says that football players should be tested for COVID-19 within 72 hours of each game.

The collegiate governing body released an updated set of recommendations and guidelines for schools to follow as they try to play sports during the 2020-21 school year. Those guidelines include testing players in high contact risk sports before each game and isolating any player who comes in prolonged contact with someone who has COVID-19.

Both football and basketball are included in the high contact risk category.

“When we made the extremely difficult decision to cancel last spring’s championships it was because there was simply no way to conduct them safely,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. “This document lays out the advice of health care professionals as to how to resume college sports if we can achieve an environment where COVID-19 rates are manageable. Today, sadly, the data point in the wrong direction. If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic.”

Assuming football is played this fall, a player who tests positive for coronavirus must isolate for 10 days if he has no symptoms while those who have symptoms must be symptom-free for at least 72 hours. And any person who was in contact with the player who tested positive must quarantine for 14 days.

As you can envision, those protocols can be prohibitive to playing football as scheduled. Sizable portions of teams could be forced to quarantine if a teammate tests positive for coronavirus. And the NCAA is acutely aware of that.

A player’s test results must also come back within that 72-hour window, meaning that the tests need to be turned around quickly. That’s not happening in many parts of the country. Testing results are delayed across the country as coronavirus cases have spiked in recent weeks. Schools will need to figure out ways to get quick results ahead of games.

“Because of this increase, it is possible that sports, especially high contact risk sports, may not be practiced safely in some areas,” the NCAA said. “In conjunction with public health officials, schools should consider pausing or discontinuing athletics activities when local circumstances warrant such consideration.”

The NCAA’s guidelines came with a chart that plainly laid out how coronavirus cases have exploded. The spikes across the country have led to increasing pessimism in athletic departments about the viability of fall sports. And the increase in confirmed coronavirus cases is why both the Big Ten and Pac-12 have said their teams will play conference-only schedules in the fall.

The move to conference-only schedules gives schools flexibility to move games around with fewer games over the fall and potentially avoid scenarios where numerous members of a team miss multiple games because someone tested positive for COVID-19.

Other recommendations

• The NCAA’s guidelines strongly recommend that players and coaches wear masks while on the sidelines during games.

• Any person who becomes symptomatic between when the test was taken and results are returned must go into isolation. A team must inform its opponent if someone develops coronavirus-like symptoms during a game.

• “Schools should have in place a mechanism for notifying other schools should an athlete from one team test positive within 48 hours after competition with another team.”

• All officials should be tested regularly before games like players.

• Teams should work out and practice in “functional units” of 5-10 people whenever possible. All training should be done outdoors if possible.

“A similar strategy is to have one unit of a team always train against another unit of a team,” the NCAA said. For example, the first unit of the football team always training against the third unit of the football team; and the second and fourth units always training together. This means that if an individual from one of those units does become infected, the entire team may not be impacted, and contact tracing may be more manageable than it would be otherwise in the event of an infection.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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