College sports have found yet another way to expose the inequalities between the haves and have-nots in the sport: coronavirus testing.
Seen by some administrators as the biggest key to pulling off college sports before a vaccine is widely available, testing for the virus has become a significant part of every return-to-play plan. And while college football programs with tens of millions in television revenue pouring in can afford major investments in comprehensive testing protocols, the same can’t be said at lower levels. The same day the University of Illinois announced it would test its football players daily, I heard from coaches around the country in college basketball who said their plans paled in comparison. One mid-major assistant in a Group of 5 football conference told me his team hasn’t been tested in over three weeks despite beginning full-contact summer practices. Another source told me he was aware of a Big South school that hasn’t tested its basketball players at all: even on arrival.
If you’ve followed my tweets over the last month, I’ve been pretty steadfast in my belief that we should play college sports this fall and beyond. One of my key arguments has been that we can create an environment on campus for student-athletes that is no more or less dangerous than what they’d experience in “the real world”. I can assure you I’m not alone in this belief based on conversations with coaches throughout the country. However, playing basketball is a contact sport. There are lots of instances where social distancing isn’t possible. Testing (particularly tests with a quick turnaround time) is the strongest tool we have to prevent outbreaks within teams AND from stopping college sports from having a negative impact on campus campuses as a whole.
The NCAA has set a standard of once-weekly testing to be completed within 72 hours of competition. Pulling off that or an even stronger testing protocol creates two challenges: testing access and testing affordability. At big research universities, tests may be able to be run in on-campus labs. Smaller schools on the other hand may need to use private or even state-run labs for testing. Tests also aren’t cheap: reports have labeled them at around $100 per test, though that price can vary. And while college football can afford to leave smaller schools behind for a season dictated by the “Autonomous 5” conferences, college basketball simply cannot. A full-sized NCAA Tournament and the TV revenue it brings with it simply has to happen for the long-term viability of the NCAA as an organization. There’s no way around it.
So it’s necessary for the NCAA to have an NCAA Tournament, and it’s necessary for schools to have access to testing to protect players and make a season feasible. These things work hand in hand, which is why I’m proposing that the NCAA use its resources to help schools afford and gain access to testing.
Does the NCAA have unlimited amounts of money sitting in its bank account? Of course not. Losing the 2020 NCAA Tournament was as painful for its checkbook as it was for everyone else in college sports. But the Pac-12 (which has its own financial woes) has reportedly developed a plan to give loans in the tens of millions of dollars to its schools should football be canceled. If nothing else, the NCAA could act like a creditor of sorts to help relieve pressure on cash-strapped athletic departments faced with tough decisions like sports cuts in the near future.
The other thing the NCAA could do is use its platform as a massive national brand to help its schools access tests. A lab like the MLB has set up to do its personal bidding likely couldn’t happen at current levels of testing access, but could work be done to help conferences with fewer resources make sure their athletes are safe? Of course.
The NCAA can’t be blamed for the failings of college football in planning for the coming season because it really doesn’t have much if any control over college football. But it DOES control college basketball, and it’s essential that the much-maligned organization steps up and is proactive in making sure schools have the resources they need to play out the season. The college football mindset since April has been one of wait and see, and that strategy has clearly backfired as evidenced by the lack of clarity about a season that could start for some teams in just over three weeks.
Could things be better in November or January? Yes. After weeks of case growth, trends in both cases and hospitalizations are moving in the right direction nationwide right now. Rapid testing is being developed and would be a gamechanger for sports and other events if approved by the FDA. Vaccines and treatments continue to progress through clinical trials. Any of those developments will make the ability to play college sports a lot easier.
But if the NCAA is serious about making sure its cash cow graces television screens in March, the work starts now. Making a significant financial commitment to testing would keep student-athletes safe, help schools with fewer resources play this season and be the first step in putting together a successful March Madness.