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Unable to afford coronavirus testing, some colleges are canceling football season

By WILL HOBSON | The Washington Post | Published: July 3, 2020

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To Morehouse College President David Thomas, the math just didn't make sense.

In order for the private, historically black university in Atlanta to play football safely this fall, Thomas believed, it would need coronavirus safety policies similar to those adopted by the NBA, with all players getting tested multiple times each week while living in a bubble environment, walled off from the outside world.

The tests would cost millions the school doesn't have, Thomas said, and bubbling college students is practically impossible. And while football is an important part of the campus experience at Morehouse, the Maroon Tigers play in Division II, without the lucrative television contracts and massive stadiums that make Division I teams such as Alabama, Clemson and Florida the financial lifeblood of surrounding regions.

So, last week, Thomas announced the cancellation of Morehouse's fall sports — football and cross country — a decision that drew more attention across college sports than perhaps anything the Maroon Tigers have done on the field. Morehouse is one of six schools with NCAA sports that have canceled their fall seasons, along with Bowdoin, Williams College, Pratt Institute, the College of New Jersey and U-Mass. Boston.

"I don't see how any school can play football, safely," Thomas said in a phone interview this week. "If their standard is, 'I'm not going to place my student-athletes at any greater risk than I place my other students' ... I don't see how a president or chancellor can make the decision to have football in the fall."

The decision at Morehouse could be a sign of things to come across Division II and III, as well as the less wealthy ranks of Division I, according to interviews with several athletic directors and conference commissioners this week, reflecting financial realities at these schools far different from those at the wealthier programs in the major football conferences.

Schools in the Power Five conferences that largely control major college football have millions at their disposal to spend on tests and other protocols. But they also run football programs that generate billions, collectively, for their universities and local communities, creating tremendous financial pressure to salvage a season during the coronavirus pandemic.

At Morehouse, the entire athletic department, including football, costs about $2 million to run each school year, Thomas said. Canceling fall sports will save some money in travel, and the school will still honor the scholarships for its athletes.

"Essentially, it's negligible," Thomas said of the financial impact of the cancellations. "We don't make money off of our sports."

At West Texas A&M, a Division II school in the state's panhandle region, money also will not factor into a decision on playing fall sports, Athletic Director Michael McBroom said.

Canceling a season for the Buffaloes football team would cost in the hundreds of thousands, McBroom said, and would be a hardship for a department with an annual budget of $10 million, but would not inflict the devastation predicted by his peers at major Division I programs.

"The real pressure at Division II and Division III is the revenue the school generates from having full-time enrolled students on campus," McBroom said. "The drive to play, for us, is not really a financial decision."

If weekly testing becomes a prerequisite for safely playing football and other sports this fall, as some experts and college officials have suggested, the vast majority of the hundreds of schools in Division II and III likely will have to cancel fall sports, officials said.

"Where the Power Five are, and their ability to test on a weekly basis, that's just not our reality," said Jim Naumovich, commissioner of the Division II Great Lakes Valley Conference.

Weekly testing at current prices — with costs ranging from $40 to $240 per test — would be cost-prohibitive even for some Division I schools that play in the less lucrative Football Championship Subdivision.

UT-Chattanooga Athletic Director Mark Wharton said the price for coronavirus tests would need to drop from the $65 he was recently quoted to about $8 in order for his department to be able to afford testing all athletes weekly.

"I just don't see how that's feasible, at the current price," Wharton said of weekly testing.

Wharton and others are following the potential for pooled or batch testing, a more cost-effective but less precise method. In batch testing, every player for a team would submit a sample — ideally, blood — that is combined, and all the samples are tested at once. The result would tell officials if there were any infected athletes on a team, and could potentially be useful as a pregame test.

Jay Gardiner, commissioner of the Southern Athletic Association, a Division III conference based in Atlanta, said he is also following the developmental use of batch testing while discussing potential modifications to other sports to reduce the risk of infection during competition.

Among the potential changes, Gardiner said: Referees with mechanical whistles that don't require blowing, eliminating faceoffs in lacrosse and disinfecting balls in all sports routinely throughout competition.

"I don't feel like I'm a commissioner right now for anything other than COVID-19," Gardiner said.

When asked about the decisions at Morehouse and other schools that already have canceled fall sports, Gardiner and others said they felt it was too early to make a decision and mentioned potential advances in testing. They also cited the possibility of positive cases in certain regions subsiding enough by September to play sports more safely.

"I respect anyone's opinion erring on the side of safety ... but this is a thing that's new, and I think it's still early to make decisions about canceling seasons," said Jim Schaus, commissioner of the Southern Conference, whose 10 schools spread across the Southeast compete in Division I.

But just as an improving coronavirus picture in the U.S. could raise the possibility of fall sports, a worsening situation could make playing sports even more difficult, officials acknowledged. Rising caseloads in some parts of the country are straining the supply of coronavirus testing materials, raising the possibility that even some schools that can afford weekly testing won't be able to acquire enough tests.

As athletes have returned to some campuses in recent weeks, the potential difficulties of getting college players to follow strict distancing requirements also has become clear.

At UT-Chattanooga, Wharton said, all returning athletes were tested for the coronavirus when they returned to campus, then told to self-quarantine for up to two days, until results came back. About a dozen football players ignored the quarantine request and held an informal practice together, running routes and some offensive plays. When the results came back, one of the players tested positive. All of them are now in mandatory quarantine, awaiting the results of another round of tests.

"I don't think any athletic director or football coach in the country is sleeping very well right now," Wharton said.

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