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COLUMN: Delay the college football season until we have rapid testing

Nobody wants to cancel the season, but right now programs are flying blind.

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Jim Souhan: Fall football forecast: Maybe the NFL plays Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The college football season hasn’t even started, but it’s already fourth-and-goal.

Programs around the country are attempting to make a collective last-ditch stand against an opponent that right now has kept them guessing more than a Lincoln Riley-schemed offense.

As we learned Monday afternoon when Northwestern reported its first positive test since it began bringing its players back to campus in late June, even some of the best defenses can’t keep the coronavirus scoreless.

There’s so much uncertainty surrounding the feasibility of a college football season. The optics were shaky even in May when the virus’ downward trajectory nationally indicated hope.

Now, they’re downright bad. After a leaked recording of a video call between SEC leaders and players on the conference’s student-athlete leadership council revealed players concerned by the conference’s lack of protocols and frustrated by the lack of answers, it’s clear the powers that be in college football need to do better by their players.

This atmosphere isn’t exclusive to the conference where it just means more™. On Sunday, a group of Pac-12 players published a list of 17 items relating to COVID and racial justice concerns, threatening to boycott the season unless the conference guaranteed their demands in writing.

While the two instances over the weekend aren’t exactly the same, they both touch upon the most time-sensitive issue at hand: the safety of a college football season, for which fall camp starts this Friday for some conferences and later this month for the Pac-12.

The players want to play. The coaches and university administrators want to play. Fans want a season. And yes, despite theories that some in sports media don’t want a season to happen, the journalists want a season.

Right at this very moment, though, it’s not worth it.

There are calls to mail it in and cancel the season, or move it to the spring. Those are deeply unpopular and logistically challenging options for several reasons.

If players want more certainty, better testing protocols and safer campus environments, that can be achieved before we have a vaccine. Rapid testing is the answer.

Last week, Pete Thamel of Yahoo Sports ran a piece about how the path to a season runs through rapid testing. Right now, people are skeptical of those currently on the market. Tulane sports medicine director Greg Stewart told Thamel the antigen test, which tests for proteins made by the virus, is only 60 to 70 percent accurate.

That isn’t considered good enough right now, especially if it’s being compared to gold-standard PCR tests, which catch over 90 percent of infections. Doctors and administrators alike have expressed concern the rapid tests aren’t accurate enough and provide too many false negatives, giving players a false sense of security.

But if there’s one thing we’ve come to realize, it’s that current test results often take too long to prevent outbreaks and aren’t good for routine monitoring. They’re expensive, too.

While those in charge of nearly any industry, including higher education and college sports, wait for technology they say isn’t here yet, the truth is it’s out there. Daily, quick, cheap tests that could bring us back closer to pre-pandemic life sit in labs waiting to be fast tracked by the FDA and mass produced so millions of Americans can test themselves at home daily.

But these tests shouldn’t be held to the same sensitivity standard as our current diagnostics, because their application is different.

One type of rapid test is an infectiousness test, not an infection test. They are highly sensitive at picking up when someone is capable of spreading the virus.

“The tests exist. The technology exists. They could be manufactured tomorrow and they would detect people on the days that they are most likely to be transmitting,” Dr. Michael Mina, an epidemiologist and immunologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health told STAT News in July.

Mina is the man who should be speaking to university presidents, if his op-ed in The New York Times hasn’t already circulated their desks.

Basically, the virus has to replicate at a certain level for an infected person to be able to spread it, which is why someone can come in contact with a COVID positive individual and not get infected. PCR tests pick up the smallest amounts of virus RNA, even dead virus, which is one reason a person can test positive for COVID long after they have recovered.

Once these tests are made accessible to the public, people can test themselves daily. If someone’s infected, they’ll catch it with that testing frequency. Since scientists have not been able to cultivate live virus after nine days, testing often for infectiousness may reduce the need for 14-day quarantines once someone recovers and repeatedly tests negative. That would help solve a team outbreak, also making scheduling much easier.

It’s a different way of thinking about COVID tests, but they can bring back, among many things, college sports, and make a reduced risk football season possible. They’re waiting for us to manufacture them.

In a way, the fate of a potential college football season rests in the hands of the Food and Drug Administration. The climb is uphill since the agency requires all COVID diagnostic tests to have sensitivity similar to that of PCR, which they don’t.

Few are talking about this near-term strategy to slow and control the epidemic, which comparatively has taken a back seat to hoping and waiting for vaccines and therapeutics. Currently, it’s anyone’s guess for when these tests will be available, which makes those in power understandably hesitant to wait for them to start a season.

There are undoubtedly the concerns about delaying a season multiple months, but if there’s anything we’ve learned over the past few weeks, it’s that the Power Five deal brokers can do whatever they want. The NCAA barely applies to college football, and conference officials continue to kick the can down the road when it comes to making decisions or starting the season.

For what it’s worth, the Power Five needs to show some kind of unity if it wants to start and finish a college football season. The Big Ten is taking a different approach from the ACC who’s taking a different approach from the SEC who’s taking a different approach from the Big 12, who finally acknowledged the virus exists.

Public health officials were once concerned about the season coinciding with a second wave of coronavirus cases in the winter, but nobody seems to be talking about that anymore having seen the epidemic we’ve sustained this summer. Furthermore, with these tests, the threat of a second wave of mass outbreaks is lessened.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said the following about sports returning, “You don’t make the timeline. the virus makes the timeline.” He’s right, especially with the limited tools and uncontrolled epidemic we currently have in the US. But with rapid testing, we can help make the timeline.

In 2020, trying to do things the way they’ve always been done is a losing strategy. Don’t promise a season, but why not just leave the door open? As we’ve learned, canceling a season puts so much at stake financially. If it isn’t feasible, then bag it.

You want football. I want football, too. But let’s make a short-term sacrifice and wait a little longer, because that could make all the difference. Heck, with these tests, fans could attend games if they are tested before entering the stadium or provide proof of a same-day negative result.

Instead of punting until 2021, Power Five decision-makers should call timeout and regroup. Remember, we’re still at the goal line.

Editor’s note: The article has been updated to reflect that the Big 12 Board of Directors approved plan to play 9 conference games and 1 nonconference game. It was also later learned the one positive test was a false positive.