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If football ends up in the spring, experts have injury concerns

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Moving the season to the spring could have detrimental consequences.

Across the country, college coaches, medical staffs, administrators and student-athletes aren’t sure if they’ll be on the field this fall. If they can play, the questions of how and when should they do so to promote the safety of everyone involved arise.

The coronavirus pandemic has challenged the sports world with endless pressing decisions, including how to play the upcoming college football season.

One scenario that gained traction early was moving the season to the spring, something that hasn’t happened since 1914. The powers that be in various conferences have all but vowed to play this autumn, but depending on the success of campus repopulation plans and the spread of the virus over the next two months, it’s all up in the air.

In the event of a season shift, medical experts, administrators, coaches and players all have their concerns about the injuries that could result from making such drastic changes.

Managing practices

“The human body is a machine,” sports medicine specialist Balu Natarajan said. “It is based on balancing a number of different factors, so this would completely throw off that balance. You are tinkering with a bunch of different variables all at once. It’s not even tinkering with some variables. It’s taking those variables and completely flipping them 180 degrees.”

Doctors caution coaches and administrators about the period it takes for an athlete to regain full strength after a period of dormancy.

Chicago Bulls director of sports performance Chip Schaefer said players could be at increased risk of soft tissue, muscular tenderness and joint injuries if teams don’t have as much time to practice and get ready before the season.

“My general philosophy was a day for a day,” Schaefer said. “So when we’ve been shut down for four weeks, it would take guys around four weeks to get back in shape.”

Medical experts are aware of these concerns because of injuries that arose in past situations. The National Football League saw a dramatic spike in soft tissue injuries following the rapid ramp-up after a 2011 lockout lasted until late July, cutting well into the offseason program.

To limit these injuries, the NCAA has widely accepted a six-week return plan to decrease these injuries, according to Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald and offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian. On Wednesday, the NCAA Division I Council approved a preseason of that suggested length, with summer activities beginning July 13 and practices starting August 7.

While that period is the minimum Fitz said he’d need to get his team ready for the first weekend of September, his players have not been partaking in their usual rigorous, on-campus offseason program. They’ve been in constant communication with the coaching and training staffs, but there’s only so much they can do on their own at home.

Recovery period

Another primary concern is that a season played in the spring would nearly halve the recovery period between the end of the season and the following fall season.

Freshman offensive lineman Josh Priebe has yet to partake in a season, but he said that just from the practices, having two seasons in a calendar year would be a lot, citing the need for adequate recovery time from injury. The break from the usual routine could be dangerous.

“You are basically destroying that entire cycle and trying to combine rest and recovery with new training and preparation,” Natarajan said.

A collision-induced injury, which would normally result in four weeks recovery time, could now take six weeks to heal because of the additive effects of muscle soreness and bruising, or even lack of sleep by trying to combine rest and revamp.

And for those wondering how big a concern Chicago winter is, Natarjan said that playing in colder temperatures could cause athletes to struggle to get blood flow to smaller joints and extremities like fingers and toes.

Preparing for the unknown

The COVID-19 pandemic remains the most pressing health concern. Playing in the new year may provide athletic departments with more time to prepare, but if a second wave of cases occurs with flu season in the winter, the possibility of football happening becomes unlikely.

While medical experts have their concerns, and coaches and administrators are adamant about abiding by them, some on the field and sidelines just want to play football no matter the circumstances.

“Football is football,” Marshall Lang, another rising freshman, said. “I’ll play any time, any where, any place no matter the weather, no matter the injuries I have, but I’d really love for it not to be canceled and not to be postponed.”

While not all injuries are avoidable, Natarajan said there are certain precautions athletes can take to lessen the chances of severe injuries once activities resume by keeping their bodies fit and ready. But at the same time, at one point or another, people will need to return to some sort of normal training regimen to be able to play a season again.

“It’s one thing for the general population, but for elite athletes to train under these circumstances in terms of even getting outdoors on the cardio side of it, that’s been woefully inadequate,” Schaefer said. “I’m sure for a lot of these guys, this is the longest they’ve gone without a ball in their hands since they were children. Those are huge concerns for me.”

The first batch of athletes not receiving injury rehabilitation treatment are set to return Monday for voluntary workouts, and while it’s unclear what these workouts will entail and how they’ll be modified for safety, the staff says it is determined to do its best.

“We will work through all decisions we make locally with the direction of our medical team,” Fitz said. “Especially in this first month of June, it’s on a voluntary basis...I will support our guys 100 percent no matter what happens.”