Rooney: Early sample not encouraging for college football kickoff

Controlling virus outbreak as voluntary workouts continue critical

Ralphie V, the University of Colorado mascot, runs on the field during the Pac-12 game with Arizona on Oct. 5, 2019. Animal-rights group PETA is calling for the university to retire the live mascot program.

I’m simply watching, and hoping, just like everyone else. The early signs for a return to sports? It’s not encouraging.

This past week marked the beginning of voluntary workouts for student-athletes in the Pac-12 Conference, following a slight return to athletics normalcy on campuses across the country. It has been three months since the entire NCAA ledger was canceled by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and this week’s toe-dipping into allowing athletes access to on-campus workouts was designed as the first step in the quest to see some sort of valid college football season this fall.

Here’s hoping the next few weeks unfold better than the first one.

From workout shutdowns on other campuses to an enforcement plan released for Boulder’s Abatement of Public Nuisance Code to curtail irresponsible public gatherings, this week’s trends haven’t exactly inspired hope. And time is running out to outline a safe and reasonable approach to embarking on any sort of college football season.

Remember, it’s not just a matter of keeping the coronavirus under control in Colorado — which, despite the recent local surge in confirmed cases, is a state trending better than most. A safe reopening in Colorado doesn’t mean the Buffs, or their fans, can necessarily expect the same from states across the Pac-12 footprint.

According to data this week from Johns Hopkins University, 10 states have experienced a record high in seven-day averages of new virus cases per day. The CU football team is supposed to travel to three of them by the end of October — Texas (Sept. 19 at Texas A&M), Arizona (Oct. 9 at UA), and California (Oct. 31 at USC). Two other teams from those states are slated to visit the Buffs by the end of September, with the Buffs scheduled to host Fresno State on Sept. 12 and Oregon on Sept. 26.

The potential hurdles don’t end there. The CU men’s basketball team is supposed to travel to two other states that recently posted new highs in seven-day case averages by the end of the year, with a November date at the Fort Myers Tip-Off in Florida and a neutral-floor battle against TCU on Dec. 19 in Las Vegas at the inaugural Pac-12 Coast to Coast Challenge. Furthermore, nonconference scheduling for sports like soccer and volleyball could prove more challenging than ever (national women’s soccer power Florida State owes CU a return visit, but that game is slated for 2021).

Certainly a spike in confirmed coronavirus cases should have been expected as student-athletes reconvene on campuses across the country, and as local economies begin opening their doors to more and more customers. How those positive cases are handled, and whether they lead to a spike in hospitalizations, will be critical to monitor in the coming weeks.

The football-at-all-costs crowd will point out that student-athletes are among the demographic least afflicted by a positive test. And that they are in a better bubble for health care on campus than at home. Both points are true. But the typical college game day experience also includes dozens of team personnel, media and broadcast personnel, officials, a contingent of first responders, and stadium staff. Never mind the coaching staffs, many of whom fall into a much more dangerous demographic than the athletes, or the crowds in the stands, even if only a low percentage of capacity is allowed through the gates. Factor in two months of workouts and campus life and all the university personnel a positive yet asymptomatic student-athlete might cross paths with in the meantime, and the challenge of controlling sports-fueled outbreaks becomes exponentially more difficult.

I want to be back at Folsom Field on a beautiful autumn Saturday as much as anyone. Yet it’s difficult to picture that scene amid the early reports from voluntary workouts across the country. On Saturday, Kansas State announced it was pausing its voluntary football workouts for two weeks amid a breakout of 14 positive tests. Clemson football reportedly has almost two dozen cases. At UCLA, football players have requested an independent, third-party oversight to their medical care. If some of these socially-distanced, voluntary workouts already have been halted, what will happen when full-contact practices begin? Or if fans, regardless of potential capacity restrictions, are mingling in the stands?

The rash of positive tests isn’t by any means the death knell of the football season. Yet it nonetheless has set a pessimistic tone to the idea of possibly celebrating the return of college football on Sept. 5.