SMU is one of many universities, colleges, and schools trying to safely bring athletes back on campus this summer and the unprecedented effort is expensive, complex, and risky. The program got off to a telling start: In mid-June, five student athletes at SMU tested positive for COVID-19 according to a Dallas Morning News report. All students signed liability waivers before returning, releasing the school of any responsibility should they contract the virus. But the program is a day-to-day learning process with huge stakes. The NCAA has resisted issuing national protocols, leaving each school to devise its own plan.
Dr. Matthew Davis is an internist and one of the SMU team physicians who works with athletes across all sports, even traveling with teams and working the sidelines. He’s a member of the committee that developed the protocols for SMU’s athletes to return to workouts this summer.
Summer for student athletes typically is a time to take classes, work and train with teammates. The athletes train on their own, and the individual sports coaches are not on campus. The NCAA ruled that athletes could return in June to their respective campuses for voluntary workouts.
SMU decided that it would allow a test group of 80 athletes to return last month, mostly players for the football, basketball, and volleyball teams. As they arrived, students were given a blood test for antibodies and the nasal swab for active COVID-19. Straightaway, they were educated about the disease, hygiene, social distancing, the rules to follow when working out, along with some common sense guidelines to mitigate the possible spread of the virus. Workouts are limited to three people in the weight room at a time. There are no team meetings. All other training must take place outdoors.
Athletes are retested on a rolling basis every few weeks to determine if and how the virus might be spreading. The goal is to test 20 percent of athletes weekly, and if a certain percentage come back positive, as they did a few weeks ago, they can use that number to apply to the rest of the athletes on campus. With two more waves of students arriving over the summer, keeping track of a potential spread is essential. “We want to find out if students are positive, and if they have no symptoms, how are we controlling the amount of virus on campus,” Davis says.
If a player tests positive, the athletic medical staff traces the student’s close contacts and isolates the athlete, which is no simple task. With some athletes living off campus, making sure they are well-nourished and monitored is a challenge. The goal is to build institutional experience testing, surveilling, and quarantining if necessary with the launch group of 80 before more athletes are brought back to campus.
In July, mandatory workouts are set to begin for some fall sports, though with the disease spreading fast throughout North Texas, there are many unknowns. But for the time being, the plan is to move forward with school and the seasons at SMU. “So far everything is on,” Davis says. “The initial plan is to move ahead.”
Davis and the SMU team have been collaborating with team physicians across the American Athletic Conference to establish best practices and create criteria for starting up seasonal play without endangering athletes. “If there is a silver lining to this, it is the relationships we have developed with other team physicians and the ideas we are be able to share,” Davis says.
But even with constant testing and collaboration, the outbreak in Texas may limit teams’ ability to travel. Fall sports teams are scheduled to travel across the country for games in 2020, and right now some states are requiring that all Texas travelers quarantine for two weeks upon arrival, which could put games or the entire season in jeopardy.
Looking ahead, one big question is how many positive cases will completely shut down a team’s season or athletics in general. “We ask that a lot,” Davis says. “How many people is too much to shut it down?” At the University of South Florida and the University of Houston, which are in SMU’s conference, the school already decided to shut down voluntary workouts after too many students tested positive. But for a smaller sport like volleyball or soccer, just a handful of cases will be enough to take out key players or a chunk of the team, making a continuation of the season a wash. And if a few players test positive, then a larger circle has to be isolated, meaning they can’t train or practice.
Officials are forging ahead at SMU, doing the best they can to keep students safe while also giving them what will be for many the most intense and high-level athletic experience of their lives. But many questions remain. If there are games, will the opposing team agree to play against a team that has had a number of positive cases? Davis says time will tell. “There is going to be a conversation between us, our opponents, the presidents, and the conference commissioner to ask, is it safe to play this game?”