The Illinois Example?
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Let's get it out of the way. When you read this, you're going to think "there goes Hopeful Robert again". Hopeful Robert has written many articles just like this over the years. "Is The 2020 Illini Schedule The Easiest Schedule In Big Ten History?" Hopeful Robert will always find a tiny little speck of something surrounding his moribund football program and spin it to "is this when Illinois football will finally turn the corner?".
(Narrator: it wasn't.)
But with this whole Covid thing, the tweets I'm seeing today all make me think this same thought. Are the practices at the University of Illinois the last four days an example of how college football might actually be played this fall? (See what I mean?)
The tweets I'm referring to:
This is what many college administrators hoped would be in place by now to play games. Would make it easier to prevent outbreaks or have large groups in quarantine. As a P5 coach recently told me, it’s all about mitigation. https://t.co/JwyQ0B6unc— Adam Rittenberg (@ESPNRittenberg) August 9, 2020
To dig a little further, that one is quote-tweeting this tweet:
Rapid, widely-available testing is one reason to think winter/spring football is possible (along with any form of a college hoops season) https://t.co/13Oegh1CFu— Jon Wilner (@wilnerhotline) August 9, 2020
My first thought: why are we talking about this in terms of "what administrators hoped would be in place by now"? Illini players are on campus right now, practicing, getting tested with a saliva test daily - a saliva test developed on campus with campus resources and no supply-chain issues.
(Right there I felt it. My brain telling me to shut this article down. I don't understand epidemiology, I have no knowledge of medical testing supply chains, nor do I understand FDA approval of testing methods on a national scale. There are a large number of possible responses from knowledgeable commenters which will make me want to delete this article immediately. Yet Hopeful Robert presses on.)
Let me back up a bit. First off, I need to say that I agree with the general premise of the tweets above. That the key to unlocking bubble-less sports might be found in access to rapid testing. Don't let any player in the door unless they've tested negative that day. There are differing opinions here - this will not eliminate Covid outbreaks, and some hold the opinion that sports should not be played until a vaccine (too much risk of community spread and not enough known about any long-term effects). For me, the way I view this, it comes down to the risk of rapidly spreading the virus through a contact sport. And to eliminate that risk (players might still get the virus, but it would happen away from the football facility and be screened out before it came through the door), the key would be rapid testing.
Which is what Illinois is doing. In Zoom interviews after the first day of practice, players talked about how they are getting saliva tests daily. I wrote about it in this post (and in the comments), but you don't have to read all of that - I'll just give you the bullet points:
- A chemistry professor at Illinois developed a saliva test. A vet med lab was converted to a Covid testing lab on campus and they have the ability to process 10,000 saliva tests per day using campus resources.
- This was done in anticipation of bringing students back to campus in the fall. It also gives the campus the ability to test athletes every day.
- The Illinois Health Department certified the test to be used for faculty and staff but they are awaiting FDA approval so that it might be used beyond the University.
That last bullet point might be where this whole thing breaks down. For Big Ten football to happen (under this line of thinking), 14 campuses would have to have similar programs. It could be as simple as something like "the state of New Jersey won't allow saliva testing until the FDA approves a nationwide test" (or whatever) and this whole premise goes away.
And just because I agree with that premise (that this whole thing likely hinges on access to rapid testing), it doesn't mean that this is how the conference commissioners and university presidents are viewing this. Yesterday was a wild day on Twitter, with reports that there was momentum among Big Ten presidents to cancel the season, that the real issue here is the Pac-12 players demands, and college football media members generally turning on each other. There's no central leadership in this sport, so there's not one focus point for "what factors are the most important in making this decision?"
But with this specific topic, when I go back to those tweets above, every time I read them I land at the same place. Wilner mentions "winter/spring" as in "if they can get this testing online by the winter or spring, it might be the key to getting sports back" and all I can think is that such testing is online right now at Illinois.
Again, I'm not saying this is not without other complications. The Illinois press release and the Yale press release both discuss applying for FDA approval so that their tests can be used nationally. There might be reasons those approvals require a six-month process, and the only way the scenario I'm suggesting happens is for all Power Five schools to get their own on-campus testing program approved through their own state. I have no idea what that looks like right now. Could be 3 campuses, could be 61.
Still, I can't help but be "over here over here" today when I flip through college football twitter. It's like some bad movie scene where the guy is all "if only there was some time-telling device you could wear on your body and it would tell you what time it is throughout the day" and someone else is like "a watch! somehow he doesn't know about watches!". Well, I keep seeing this testing being discussed and don't understand why no one is raising their hand and saying "you mean like they're doing at Illinois right now?".
In the last few days, that's where I've centered all of my thoughts on this. The Cardinals and Marlins have proven that sports outside a bubble will have Covid outbreaks. Management of those outbreaks (and minimization of outbreaks) would require over-the-top testing. Division II and III schools don't have those capabilities, so Division II and III schools have postponed fall sports. Even MAC schools have postponed fall sports. But if P5 conferences can figure out rapid testing, fall sports might not be postponed. Illinois appears to have figured it out.
I know, I know. There are a dozen different scenarios where it could still go sideways. I'm simply hoping there's a safe and viable way to play college football this fall, and as an Illinois football fan I've gotten really good at clinging to hope and not much else. Hopeful Robert is always hopeful.
And he's also really curious if people actually know that rapid testing is happening at Illinois right now. Could this methodology be copied across the conference? If it's true that all of this currently hinges on access to rapid testing, DID ILLINOIS JUST SAVE COLLEGE FOOTBALL?
(Narrator: it did not.)