Analysis: Where is Notre Dame football headed after hitting the pause button?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The relative quiet surrounding Notre Dame football’s apparently voluntary pause in the practice schedule is, at the very least, unsettling.

Not because taking off Wednesday a week after training camp started — and possibly Thursday as well — is the precursor to the beginning of the end of Notre Dame’s stab at playing fall football in 2020, but because of the lack of reassurances that the opposite is true.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel Wednesday that the hiatus would give campus officials the opportunity to answer players’ questions and work on logistics relative to university president John I. Jenkins’ Tuesday edict/ultimatum regarding the school’s tightened COVID-19 response and protocols.

A two-sentence, athletic department press release, issued shortly thereafter, confirmed the one- or two-day stoppage and described the reasoning succinctly and ambiguously as “an abundance of caution.”

This all less rolling out than 24 hours after Jenkins announced a conditional pivot from on-campus to remote learning for all undergraduate students for the next two weeks, among other restrictive measures.

A Notre Dame spokesperson confirmed Wednesday that the “abundance of caution” included the entire football roster being retested on Wednesday, two days after the most recent testing. The hope is to have those results by Friday, though there’s no guarantee.

Later Wednesday afternoon, Notre Dame’s Nov. 27 football opponent — North Carolina — announced it had suspended all athletic activities through at least Thursday at 5 p.m., citing the continuing upward trend of positive COVID-19 cases on its campus.

North Carolina ended in-person instruction Monday for the fall semester because of the surge and sent its regular student population home.

Football at ND was initially given a green light Tuesday by Jenkins for practices to continue, which is why Wednesday’s news screamed for additional context. Swarbrick, when reached by the Tribune, declined to do so.

Sept. 2, 10 days before the scheduled season opener with Duke, now becomes a most important date on the Notre Dame football calendar.

Jenkins in his Tuesday live-stream address conceded that he initially was inclined to send all the students home for the rest of the semester immediately. After consultation with St. Joseph County Deputy Health Officer Mark Fox, Jenkins settled on two weeks of online learning, effective Wednesday.

If at the end of that period (Sept. 2), the case numbers and positivity rate haven’t shown marked improvement, Jenkins said he’ll revert to his initial notion of sending the students home. As of Wednesday at noon, that positivity rate had reached a record daily high of 20.6% and had risen eight straight days to a cumulative 17.2% since students began moving back to campus on Aug. 3.

By comparison the seven-day positivity rate in the state of Indiana is holding at 7.7%.

Quarterback Ian Book was among the Notre Dame players who took to social media Wednesday, imploring fellow students to comply with the new guidelines.

“Please begin/continue to self quarantine and social distance,” Book posted on Instagram. “Let’s create peer accountability amongst each other. No one wants to go BACK home, so let’s take action and make changes … #WeAreND”

The path to Notre Dame’s season remaining one of the 76 FBS schools intending to play in the fall and not joining the 54 which are not isn’t simple math, though. It’s more like advanced calculus, and not entirely in a head-exploding way.

Where there has been inconsistent messaging and response in our country about the virus, science has more than risen to the occasion.

Affordable saliva tests with quick turnaround times are suddenly a reality and can have a massive impact on sports and beyond once production gets scaled up in the coming weeks. Also on the horizon, it appears, are lateral flow tests. The concept there is a piece of paper that can be administered at home and without having to send it to a lab, akin to a pregnancy test. They’d be cheap, easy to produce in large scale, and with a response time of 10 to 15 minutes.

Notre Dame admitted in a press release that the recent campus spike overwhelmed the school’s testing capacity, and that it is beefing up both personnel and resources to handle the surge. The school did have reason for optimism going into the process.

In its pre-matriculation testing, there were 33 positives in 11,836 tests for a positivity rate of 0.28%.

The football team’s numbers have been similarly impressive, though the latest batch from Monday’s testing were incomplete as of Wednesday evening and thus have not yet been released.

The football team, at last report, had a 0.64 positivity rate since arriving in mid-June for voluntary workouts. And that Aug. 12 report included two positives registered since the return of students.

Prior to that one football player tested positive upon arrival and one other tested positive since the initial round of testing, for a total of four positives for the summer.

As Book’s plea implied, our behavior impacts the COVID-19 numbers. The common theme in surges and spikes on college campuses so far has been off-campus parties in which mitigation strategies were largely or completely ignored.

Accepting the all-too-common refrain “college kids will be college kids” seemingly absolves the irresponsible ones that whatever their political affiliation, whether they’re generally mask or anti-mask, there are consequences to their decisions.

And those consequences aren’t limited to their own lives.

Why can’t they also be held to a standard of doing what they love, but doing it smartly and safely this semester?

There are some who feel North Carolina’s students going home is the best thing for North Carolina football in that the players are more in control of their own destiny. But the school will face the ethical question of whether it’s right to play on without students on campus.

Notre Dame, through both Jenkins and Swarbrick, has already answered that question with a resounding “no” back when it was steeped in the hypothetical. But would that be a harder escape hatch to trigger as a full member (albeit temporary) of the ACC and not as an independent?

And at this point, would it be fair to the football team, that did make the sacrifices this summer to make it all work?

My favorite line about colleges navigating the unprecedented global circumstances and trying to beat the odds to at least get to the starting line comes from Notre Dame football team physician Dr. Mark Leiszler.

“There’s an element of this that’s kind of like building an airplane as you fly it,” he said back in early June and that still holds true.

It’s time to fasten your seatbelts.

Notre Dame announced Wednesday it has paused football practices and may extend that hiatus through Thursday.