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COMMENTARY

How does Navy football move forward after having consecutive games postponed due to COVID-19?

Signs at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md. marking famous battles reflect the services' tradition beyond the football field.

By BILL WAGNER | The Capital | Published: November 13, 2020

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ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — Where does the Navy football program go from here?

The Midshipmen have seen consecutive home games postponed due to coronavirus issues on the Naval Academy campus that have infiltrated the football program.

At this point, it seems highly unlikely those American Athletic Conference contests against Tulsa and Memphis will be rescheduled because there are no mutual dates available. However, it's possible the AAC might force the teams involved to shift their schedules to find a way, and one such option could be a Dec. 5 date that Navy has kept open since it plays archrival Army the following Saturday.

The Black Knights of the Hudson are off the weekend before the big showdown, and having to play a rescheduled AAC contest instead of taking two full weeks to prepare for the archrival would create a competitive disadvantage.

Schedule problems aside, Navy football must first figure out a path forward to finishing this season. COVID-19 has crept onto the campus of the Naval Academy and could potentially prevent the Midshipmen from playing any games the rest of the way if it's not brought under control.

All of college football hovers on the precipice at this point with contests being canceled and postponed throughout the country. Maryland announced Wednesday its Big Ten Conference game against Ohio State on Saturday has been canceled and will not be rescheduled.

Four SEC games — Georgia-Missouri, Alabama-LSU, Auburn-Mississippi State and Texas A&M-Tennessee — have been postponed as of Wednesday night.

Air Force, like its service academy rival Navy, is battling a coronavirus spread on its campus. Air Force canceled this Saturday's game against Wyoming after electing to not travel to West Point to meet Army last Saturday.

Army coach Jeff Monken was angered by the Air Force decision, which throws the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy series into disarray. However, Army West Point also has coronavirus issues, and Monken has reportedly moved his players into a nearby hotel to prevent them from getting infected.

Column intermission: The Colorado Springs Gazette reported Army and Air Force are discussing playing in the Independence Bowl, which seems like a long shot becausethe Independence Bowl contract calls for Army to play an opponent from the Pac-12 Conference.

If Air Force and Army do not end up playing, Navy would retain the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy since there will be no outright winner. End column intermission.

Navy's problems began two days after returning from a road game against SMU in Dallas. Regular testing conducted Nov. 2 turned up positive cases, which prompted contact tracing protocol.

A significant number of Navy players would have been unavailable to participate in the Tulsa game, which the AAC postponed Thursday afternoon. Things have only gotten worse for the Midshipmen, who have logged additional positive cases through testing done since Nov. 2.

Multiple sources told The Capital Navy would have been without upward of 30 players this Saturday had the Memphis matchup been held. Instead, that game was postponed Tuesday — marking the earliest the AAC Medical Advisory Group has made such a decision.

Before going any further, it should be noted the current problem is not confined to the Navy football program. There has been a coronavirus spread within the Brigade of Midshipmen.

Contrary to what many observers might think, this was not a case of the football program bringing COVID-19 back onto the yard following the road trip to Dallas. Members of the football team returned to a campus that had already experienced an uptick in positive tests for COVID-19. One source told The Capital the reason Navy has paused all football activities is because of "community spread."

That is maddening to administrators with the Naval Academy Athletic Association and the AAC because those two organizations have spent considerable time, effort and expense to prevent players from getting infected.

For an entire August training camp and seven games, all the preventive measures and safety protocols put into place had worked. Not one player tested positive from the time football activities began in late July until Nov. 2.

Considering circumstances across the country, that is nothing short of remarkable. Almost every other program at the Football Bowl Subdivision level has sustained a coronavirus outbreak to some degree, causing many to pause football activities.

After the latest round of postponements and cancellations, college football has seen almost 60 games impacted by the pandemic.

It's not surprising considering the so-called "second wave" of the coronavirus long predicted to occur during the colder months is underway. What is surprising is the growing evidence games are not the cause of COVID-19 positives.

Regular testing (three times per week in the case of the AAC, daily in the case of some Power-5 conferences) has seemingly created a safe environment.

"If you consider all the data that we've seen so far this season, you can only theorize there has not been transmission on the field," said Jim Berry, associate athletic director for sports medicine at Navy. "That would suggest the testing protocol designed to ensure safe practices has generally worked well. However, we just don't have enough evidence at this point to know for sure."

Navy football stayed clean for more than three months primarily because the academy succeeded in creating a bubble. However, that bubble began to get punctured after the leadership allowed limited liberty to the brigade.

For a few weekends, liberty with tight restrictions worked and there was no spike in COVID-19 positive tests. However, starting this month the bubble completely burst, and now the same factors that made the Naval Academy an ideal bubble are contributing to the spread.

You can bet the AAC is going to push hard for Navy to play next weekend, whether at South Florida or at home against Memphis if schedule rearrangements work out.

Let's presume the Midshipmen travel to Tampa to face the Bulls on Nov. 21 at 8 p.m. Upon return to Annapolis, I advocate putting the entire team into its own separate bubble for the purpose of ensuring the Dec. 12 showdown against archrival Army is not canceled or postponed.

Having the football players intermingle within Bancroft Hall among a brigade that has clearly been compromised makes no sense. I would posit that doing so would greatly increase the chance the Army-Navy game is not played at Michie Stadium on the campus of West Point as scheduled.

Army-Navy is far too important to both institutions, both emotionally and economically, to be put at risk.

Critics would suggest creating a special bubble solely for the Navy football team would constitute favoritism. While that may be true on its face, I would counter it is absolutely necessary considering the extraordinary circumstances.

Nothing has been normal in 2020 because of COVID-19, so let's not try to apply typical policies during a pandemic.

Reality is that football produces almost all the revenue that supports the NAAA, which is responsible for operating 33 varsity sports along with a significant number of club sports.

It is important to the physical mission of the institution to ensure the Army-Navy game gets played.

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