On Friday night, a bit of normalcy returned to high school football fields across Indiana.
Balls spun through the air. Shoulder pads smacked together as tacklers converged on a run. The sideline jumped in unison. Coaches yelled “Screeeeeeen!” Numbers on scoreboards jumped by sixes, ones, and threes.
This is the fall sports season as America has come to know it. But even with the opening Friday of high school football, there is something odd about it in the era of COVID-19, and it’s not just the masks players are wearing on the sideline.
A simple question lingers: If it’s possible to hear “Touchdown, Panthers” over a public address system this fall, why will fans not hear “Touchdown, Hoosiers”? Why is it “Touchdown, Cougars,” but not “Touchdown, Boilermakers”?
At the college level, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 don’t want to bear the risks of contact sports during a pandemic, as deaths from the virus exceed 1,000 in the U.S. every day. But the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 press forward. Colleges in Indiana, including IU, Purdue, and Ball State, are sidelined for the fall, while the state’s prep teams are back on the field. The landscape is filled with contradictions.
So why do these differences exist? And should they?
“We’re seeing over and over, people looking at the same numbers and coming to different conclusions,” said Dr. Kathleen Bachynski, a professor of public health at Muhlenberg College. “So this clearly isn’t completely driven by science. Some of this is cultural and ethical kinds of questions about values.”
This certainly isn’t the first time football’s virtue has been pitted against its risk. Bachynski authored “No Game for Boys to Play,” a history of youth football highlighting moments where “saving the game” was prioritized over player safety. A debate now rages about where virus transmission fits in a spectrum with concussions and broken bones.
Public health experts warn against playing close-contact sports amid a pandemic, especially with a virus so contagious and such a large percentage of cases being asymptomatic. Proponents of the game point to low mortality rates for youth with COVID-19, and the right of families to make choices about risk.
But the footballs flying through the sky — and the ones that aren’t — may have more to do with a wish than a reality.
“We’re seeing, especially in places where college football or where college sports are highly valued, a strong impulse to bring it back,” Bachynski said. “I speculate that’s because it represents a sense of normalcy. On the other hand, not having sports represents, well, something is wrong here.”
When it comes to the pandemic, there has been something wrong for a very long time.
More than 174,000 Americans have died since late February, the largest total of any nation on earth, according to Johns Hopkins University. That’s 53.26 deaths per every 100,000 people in the country, the world’s 11th-highest rate. America’s case-fatality ratio, 3.1%, ranks 12th out of the world’s 20 most affected countries.
While daily totals of new cases in the U.S. began to fall in April, another sharp rise began in mid-June, along with an increase in positivity rates — which means those figures weren’t attributable only to increases in testing. There was community spread, across many states.
As long as significant amounts of COVID-19 remained in local communities, it was a major concern for colleges. Especially because those institutions were about to bring students from all over the country back to campus, housing them in dorms and giving them a venue to socialize.
A hint of the NCAA’s worries came in mid-July when it released medical guidelines for the coming season. Along with testing protocols, the NCAA provided a line graph with daily case totals in the U.S., noting a projected trend line from April. “Where we thought we’d be,” it read. The endpoint for “Where we are” was at the top of a red line still trending steeply upward.
A month later, the Mid-American Conference decided fall sports were too risky. Two Power 5 conferences, the Big Ten and Pac-12, also pulled out. The SEC, ACC, and Big 12 refused to budge, however.
The debate of “to play or not to play” seemed somewhat silly to Carlos del Rio, a fellow with the Infectious Diseases Society of America. The testing supply chain has been under question. Turnaround times to get test results are still too slow in some places. And the virus is spreading.
“I feel like the Titanic. We have hit the iceberg,” del Rio said, “and we are trying to make decisions about what time we should have the band play.”
Epidemiologists will acknowledge there are levels of risk. College football teams live on campuses. Prep teams consist of athletes in a community, which may be more or less affected by the pandemic. In fact, colleges may be in the riskiest position, Bachynski said, because while pros have all the money and resources to “bubble” their athletes, colleges have the means to test but not truly isolate.
Unless, of course, classes are moved online, which ACC schools North Carolina and North Carolina State did following recent spikes of COVID-19 on campus.
The prep ranks are still accepting significant risks, though. The three tools society currently has to quell the pandemic are social-distancing, mask-wearing, and hand-washing.
At all levels, football lacks those things.
“College teams have recognized that,” said Thomas Duszynski, the Epidemiology Education Director at IUPUI’s Fairbanks School of Public Health. “We don’t have a vaccine. We don’t have a treatment. In the absence of that, you are going to have infections. So no, it’s not safe.”
Skeptics will point to the death totals. Fewer than 300 Americans between the ages of 5 and 24 have died from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But there are worries about myocarditis, a potential heart aftereffect. Studies have also shown 40 percent of cases of COVID-19 are asymptotic, which means young, seemingly healthy people could have the disease and spread it.
The CDC defines “close contact” with an infected individual as being within six feet for more than 15 minutes. Football players won’t be that close on each play, but …
“You are not going out there and making one play and then you are done for the season, right?” Duszynski said. “It’s repeated through three hours of game time or however long it lasts. There is heavy breathing and yelling and a lot of talking. All of those things increase risk.”
Duszynski would, ideally, want zero cases of COVID-19 in a community before large group gatherings and contact sports are allowed, especially considering the long-term effects of the disease aren’t fully known.
The next safest bar is the 5 percent positivity threshold the World Health Organization set for reopening. In the last two recorded weeks, 7.5 percent of COVID-19 tests returned positive in Indiana. That’s too much for contact sports, Bachynski said.
“We’re trying to think about balancing risk and benefits,” Bachynski said. “If our priority is making in-person schools as low risk as possible, we are going to have to pick some lower-risk extra-curriculars to at least start with and wait and see what the numbers do.
“You can offer physical activity and fun and some kind of opportunity for exercise in a way that’s lower risk than wrestling and football.”
Wait until the spring, Bachynski and Duszynski suggest.
But the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 are planning on playing this fall. In the prep ranks, 15 states have delayed until the spring, including Michigan, Illinois, and California. Another 19 are going forward this fall, including Ohio and Alabama. Most of the southeastern states, including Georgia and Florida, have opted to delay the fall season’s start.
It’s a mixed response, which Indiana High School Athletic Association commissioner Paul Neidig has been tracking. He’s also watching the state’s test positivity rate, communicating with the governor’s office and state health department. There have already been teams, such as New Palestine and Seeger, that have had to cancel games.
He’s fielding calls from concerned parents. But more often, parents have called to tell Neidig they want football now.
“There’s a harmful effect on kids that don’t get to participate,” Neidig said. “They are not in contact with their school, not in contact with their coaches. I think it is an important question to ask. What is the greater risk, not being in touch, not having that sports structure around a kid, or the risk of COVID?”
Of course, an IHSAA commissioner can run down a list of positives that high school sports provide.
Sports teach valuable lessons about teamwork. They set the stage for friendships and mentorship. They help foster community and school pride.
There are negative consequences when sports are lost. A recent University of Wisconsin study found 68% of high school athletes reported mild to severe depression, an increase from 31% in past studies. They also reported a 50% decrease in activity during the pandemic.
Neidig points to AAU sports, as well. They continued to operate during the pandemic. In his opinion, the IHSAA and its member schools can at least try to make athletics safer, asking questions, checking temperatures, and helping to contact trace when there is an outbreak. At this point, testing isn’t cheap enough for the IHSAA to mandate it for participation.
Ultimately, participation is a choice.
“They are still under the decision-making powers of their families, their parents,” Neidig said. “If high school kids and their parents want to play, we are still offering that platform. But certainly, if a family doesn’t want them to, like if they thought the risk of a concussive event was too great, they would make the choice not to participate.”
Neidig sides with individual responsibility, though he does hope people have learned from the spikes in COVID-19 that followed Memorial Day and July 4.
Labor Day is coming up.
“The other thing that’s really concerning to me, and we’ve had a couple of cases of this, where families are not being completely truthful with exposure and they’ve gone ahead and sent their student-athlete to practice and they’ve actually had to quarantine an entire team,” Neidig said. “I look at it as a selfish decision to send their child knowing they should not be going. That puts everyone at risk.
“That kind of behavior will derail what we are trying to do here.”
What the IHSAA hopes to do, if possible, is add a bit of normalcy back to high school students’ lives. Normalcy back into the lives of parents and family members, as well.
Health experts just worry it’s not time for tackle football. Bachynski, in particular, thinks outdoor sports where it’s possible to keep a distance, such as cross country, golf, and tennis, are good to go.
Just not football.
“I think we, culturally, have a lot of ideas of what high school sports are supposed to look like. It’s easy for this to break down into two camps, everybody needs to stay indoors, or just proceed as quote-unquote ‘normally’ as we can,” Bachynski said. “We can’t have it all right now, given where the numbers are. … If we increase the risk with sports, we might be less able to have in-person K-5 or K-6 schools. We are less able to protect people who are working in grocery stores or warehouses.
“I know there is symbolism in sports. But if we prioritize sports, are we potentially risking other things that also have pretty high social value?”