The math is dizzying, because the numbers themselves too often lack proper context. Or there’s conflicting context.
Or they’re prematurely spun as a trend in what seems to be a race among some in sports media to present a worst-case scenario as the most probable outcome.
Welcome to college football 2020, where the level of uncertainty roughly 2 1/2 months before the season is scheduled to kick off is somehow exceeded by the level of overreaction.
The prudent takeaway, hours before Notre Dame begins its voluntary on-campus workouts on Monday, is that there’s a real opportunity to learn from the ripples of positive COVID-19 tests — and even a few temporary shutdowns — showing up across the FBS landscape, and to get the formula right before it could persistently impact games in September and beyond.
“I think there’s unprecedented collaboration right now between institutions and medical providers and epidemiologists and infectious disease (experts), and that’s fantastic,” ND team doctor Matt Leiszler said.
“Yes, I think we’re learning from everyone. And we’re sharing information that we’re going to have as well.”
That constitutes what isn’t working as much as what is in a universe of 130 FBS schools and almost as many varying templates to dance with the virus.
Team cultures vary too to the point where headlines that may create a wakeup call on one campus might coax a shoulder shrug at another, where accountability and virus education are more ingrained.
In the past couple of days, there were a handful of examples worth chewing on:
• Saturday at defending national champ LSU, at least 30 football players were quarantining, per SI.com’s Ross Dellenger. According to his report, some of the 30 tested positive for COVID-19, while others are being sequestered because they came in contact with the players who tested positive.
He added some of the positive-tested players may have been infected at a Baton Rouge, La., nightclub, where there has been an outbreak reported. It’s interesting to note that LSU was among the few schools that didn’t administer diagnostic tests upon the players’ return to campus earlier this month.
Houston, one of two programs which has suspended summer workouts, also declined to test when its players returned.
• Kansas State is the second program to put its summer workouts on hiatus. The school did so Saturday after 14 players came back with positive tests. The pause is scheduled to last for 14 days.
• On Friday, Notre Dame’s Nov. 7 opponent, Clemson, had 23 players turn up positive, but individual voluntary workouts continued.
• Also on Friday, Texas will push forward with its summer program after 13 players tested positive and another 10 were quarantined after being identified through contract tracing. Previously four players were found to have already had the disease through antibody tests.
“Absolutely, positive tests were to be expected in June,” said Dr. Rand McClain, who specializes in regenerative and sports medicine and is the chief medical officer of Live Cell Research in Santa Monica, Calif.
“I don’t mean this is a pejorative sense, but I don’t think anyone was ignorant enough to think that we were going to slide right through this without seeing any positive tests.
“The idea is that we want to control it as best as possible. It’s fluid, and I know that sounds cliché, because it truly is a new day every day with the data we collect. It’s a very different situation today than it was a month ago, and I believe that we have less concern.
“The world’s not coming to an end. I’ve not read in any of these reports about players being hospitalized over it.”
So far the positive tests have cropped up in what, largely by design, are fairly controlled environments.
The first phase for the Notre Dame players, beginning Monday, will have them lifting and running in groups of 10 for the first couple of weeks. That will evolve to a 50-player limit and then the entire team.
Throughout the voluntary workouts and the team-required activities that start July 13, the Notre Dame players will stay at the Morris Inn in single-occupancy rooms until classes start on Aug. 10.
Then the bubble concept goes away, and there will be a wider circle of contact.
“No matter what bubble you design, if you don’t execute, it doesn’t matter,” McClain said. “You’re dealing with largely teenagers, and compliance is definitely going to be an issue.
“And I don’t mean that to be mean. At 58, I know better, but I was a teenager too. There’s rationalizations galore going on, whether it’s the girlfriend or the corner bar and ‘it’s just a couple of drinks.’”
Notre Dame tested all returning players, its two new grad transfers and nine first-time-enrolling freshmen this past week, both with diagnostic and antibody tests. A university spokesperson said Sunday that ND will reveal positive COVID-19 tests to the public as information becomes available.
Another wild card is suddenly empowered players eager to use their platforms for social change.
That means marches and walks that can include mingling with the public and compromised social distancing. To Notre Dame’s credit, it tamped down a potentially larger gathering than the 1,500 who did show up for its Friday rally for racial equality by only modestly publicizing the event.
And it exercised strict social-distancing and mask-wearing guidelines, even making sure the players’ loop through campus included a buffer zone from the fans who followed.
“Teams are going to want to be active in that movement,” McClain said. “It’s all a matter of risk versus benefit, and then trying to minimize those risks.”
Because infection rates and community behavior when it comes to mask-wearing are such a variable based on geography, there’s not a one-size-fits-all prognosis of where this is headed, even if there’s uniform commitment and execution of protocols by college teams.
And that makes what college football may look like in the fall lean more toward a guess than a calculation.
“I think there’s going to be some trepidation in the beginning,” McClain said, “but I think as we find players are turning up positive and nobody’s getting seriously ill — which is what we’re seeing so far — we’re going to move ahead with the schedule.
“There may be some games that are either canceled or postponed — schedule changes — but I think we’re going to find out we can do this and I think we’ll have a successful season.”
Now, fans in the stands is a whole nother story, but if offered two 50-yard-line tickets to watch his favorite college team, McClain had no hesitation about what his reaction would be.
“I’d take the tickets,” he said. “Now if you’re asking if my 85-year-old Pop goes with me, no. He’s staying home. But I’m going, baby.”