In early May, I wrote a newspaper column for The Post and Courier in which I laid out my case that it’s extremely unlikely we would see pro, college or high school sports in the United States this fall. I presented some ideas for how it could be done, but I was pessimistic, for sure. After all, in doing research for the hundreds of TV interviews I’ve done on the coronavirus in the last three months, all I saw was bad news. Until this week. In my latest newspaper column, I explain why I now believe we will see fall sports despite COVID-19.
Our attitude and approach to COVID-19 has completely changed
Recently I’ve watched the country slowly reopen businesses, travel and other aspects of normal life, and I now believe our attitude toward COVID-19 has changed. The genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, and I don’t see us putting it back in. Barring some significant setback, I expect athletes to take the field this fall.
Don’t believe me? This week, I reserved a hotel room for the LSU-Florida game in October. I’m not exaggerating when I say I fully expect sports to return. I believe athletes will take the field. Fans will cheer their teams on TV, and maybe in the stands, and gamblers will bet millions of dollars on the outcome of the games.
Numerous college athletic departments have reported athletes testing positive
What about all the athletes testing positive for COVID-19? It’s true that in the past few days, numerous colleges have reported athletes testing positive. Auburn with three positive football players. Oklahoma State with three positive athletes across the athletic department. Arkansas State with seven from three sports programs. Ole Miss, Iowa, and Iowa State each with one.
Due to privacy concerns, other schools announced that athletes in their programs had tested positive but declined to say how many – Boise State, Texas A&M, Marshall, Texas Tech, and Alabama, although Sports Illustrated claims the Crimson Tide has had at least five football players test positive for COVID-19.
These athletes testing positive for COVID-19, at least according to available media reports, are asymptomatic.
The lack of COVID-19 testing in high school sports
To be fair, we’re learning about these college athletes with COVID-19 only because they are being tested. In most states, there are no guidelines in place requiring high school athletes to be tested before starting practices. If we screened every high school athlete before the start of summer practices, I expect we would see similar numbers of athletes testing positive.
Four weeks ago, these reports of athletes testing positive would have confirmed my suspicion that there is no safe way to play contact and collision sports like football. But on Monday, a news event that got little attention in the press changed my opinion.
The World Health Organization says spread is rare from asymptomatic people
The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that spread of the coronavirus by people not showing symptoms “appears to be rare.” Based on data from countries who are doing very detailed contact tracing of people testing positive for COVID-19, including asymptomatic carriers, the WHO believes that secondary transmission of the disease from people who aren’t sick from COVID-19 to other people is very rare.
What the WHO statement means for athletes and sports
If this statement proves to be true, it’s very unlikely these positive athletes, who don’t have fever, cough, and other symptoms, would spread the virus to teammates. College and professional teams could keep athletes with COVID-19 symptoms away from the teams and staff for an extended period of time while allowing the rest to practice and compete normally. (This WHO statement suggests the rest of society could act in a similar way – quarantine people who are sick while allowing everyone else to go on with their lives, including watching sports in stadiums and arenas, but that’s a debate for another day.)
As long as the positive athletes are asymptomatic, then we shouldn’t expect the virus to spread through a sports team.
Pro and college teams will still have to take precautions, and it appears they are doing so. They are keeping players who test positive isolated for a certain period of time. Many will retest those positive athletes before they return and screen all players at regular intervals.
What to watch for as sports near their return
The significant setback that would derail this momentum I mentioned earlier is simple. If the coronavirus does spread quickly through a college or pro team such that a majority of the players contract it, especially if many of them become seriously ill, then we will have to change course immediately.
It will be important to follow this WHO news about asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19 closely. If more data and other credible health organizations prove that statement to be false, then all bets are off.
Note: A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the June 12, 2020 issue of The Post and Courier.