Steve Berkowitz, USA TODAY Published 5:51 p.m. ET May 15, 2020 | Updated 5:58 p.m. ET May 15, 2020
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NCAA President Mark Emmert said Friday that the breadth of college sports programs across the country makes it “almost inevitable” athletes will get sick from COVID-19 and that large-scale testing and tracing not yet available are critical to the resumption of on-campus athletics activities.
In an interview with CNN, Emmert said college sports officials have conveyed the need for such testing to “everyone from President Trump on down” and Emmert added he is “very hopeful” it will happen. Some schools have been eying June 1 as a date to begin allowing athletes to return to campus for team activities.
Emmert also said that because schools “very likely” will be re-starting their athletic programs at different times, college sports are likely to have shortened seasons and the NCAA may have to rearrange the schedules for its fall championships, perhaps moving them into the winter.
Emmert reiterated his position that at least some students must be allowed to return to campuses for in-person class instruction for sports to resume, but he said: “I’m not the ultimate arbiter to this. It’s going to be a decision that each of the campuses is going to have to make on their own.”
NCAA president Mark Emmert speaks during a press conference on April 4, 2019. (Photo: Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY Sports)
Responding to a question about what happens if an athlete tests positive for COVID-19, Emmert said:
“We have literally a half-million student athletes. We’ve got 1,100 different schools that participate in NCAA sports — 19,000 teams, not 32 (the number of teams in the NFL). So, to me, it’s not if a student comes down with the virus, it’s when. I think it’s almost inevitable with those kinds of numbers.
“And so you have to have in place the protocols for testing, for tracking symptoms, for tracking contact and the ability to quarantine individuals and those they’ve come in contact with when this occurs. Same thing with regular students. It’s impossible to believe that you can bring 40,000 students back to campus and all the faculty and staff and not have somebody sooner or later contract the virus. So it’s how you react to it that’s going to be critical.”
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An NCAA medical advisory panel has published a document that the association titled the “Core Principles of Resocialization of Collegiate Sport.” But they are presented as a set of guidelines, not rules. “In the end,” the document notes, “school and government leadership determine who can participate in, assist with, and watch student-athlete practices and competition.
Among the guidelines are:
►Access to “reliable, rapid diagnostic testing on any individual who is suspected of having COVID-19 symptoms.”
►The availability of “a local surveillance system so that newly identified cases can be identified promptly and isolated, and their close contacts must be managed appropriately.”
Emmert said the need for adequate testing is “what we have been communicating to everyone from President Trump on down. Testing is going to be one of the critical variables here. Today we don’t have access to that level of testing that you can check every student that walks on campus or every athlete that walks on to a field or a court at this stage.
“But we’re very hopeful that will be case going forward. They’ve given all kinds of reassurances that’s going to be the case. And it’s going to be critical to making this work. That’s what we’re all pushing hard for.”
Emmert said the association is preparing for schools to have varied approaches to resuming sports programs. The NCAA Division I Council, which oversees day-to-day rules-making, is scheduled to meet next week – and its agenda likely will include consideration of temporary changes to a variety of rules related to start and end dates of seasons and game scheduling.
“We’d all love to have a single date, and say, ‘OK, we’re going to start’,” Emmert said, “but that’s not going to happen in the economy, it’s not going to happen on campuses, it’s not going to happen with sports. So, we’re going to have to be more flexible around the sort of competitive-equity questions, if you will. That’s always going to take second seat to health and safety.
“We’ll have to have abbreviated seasons, probably, in some cases. And we may even have to move our championship schedules around for the fall and perhaps even into the winter, but we’re not going to compromise health and well-being.”
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