Covid spike or touchdown spike? Big Ten returns to the football field

Wisconsin Badgers playing football in the snow
October Football in Wisconsin by William Prost CC BY-NC 2.0

Shortly after it was announced that the Big Ten conference had backtracked and the University of Wisconsin-Madison would be playing football this year, the team’s Twitter account tweeted a meme video of a group of people celebrating in a crowded bar during a soccer game in 2016. 

“You love to see it,” the tweet said.

Except in 2020, amid a local spike of COVID-19 cases, that image takes on a whole new meaning. 

Just 26 minutes later, the account tweeted again, apparently correcting the record after the video of the maskless and packed together crowd of a pre-COVID era was criticized. 

“*DISCLAIMER* Please do not watch football games like the above meme (which was shot a long long time ago but photoshopped this morning) this fall!” the second tweet said. “Please watch safely and socially distanced at home with all your Badger red on.”

The Big Ten includes 14 universities from as far west as the University of Nebraska and as far east as Rutgers University in New Jersey. After initially postponing the 2020 football season, the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors voted to have its schools’ 150-player rosters and dozens of coaches travel across the country every Saturday this fall. 

They made that decision even though Big Ten cities are among the country’s worst COVID-19 hotspots. 

Champaign, Illinois, the home of the University of Illinois, had the 14th highest number of new cases in the country over the last two weeks, according to a New York Times database. The city with the fourth highest rate of growth in the country was Bloomington, Indiana, home of the Indiana University Hoosiers. The fifth highest rate of growth was in State College, Pennsylvania, where the Penn State Nittany Lions will take the field this fall. 

Madison, according to the database, has the country’s 18th highest rate of infection growth. 

But the Big Ten says it has “adopted significant medical protocols,” to protect players and coaches. 

While there might be protocols for the players and there won’t be any fans at Camp Randall, the Big Ten does not have any protocols for keeping students from gathering to watch the games on TV (which will continue to be broadcast due to the conference’s reported $250 million TV contract). 

Keeping students from gathering was already a challenge for university administrators before they were given a weekly reason to congregate. 

“While it’s exciting to have a start date, we want to make sure we make it to the finish line,” UW-Madison Athletic Director Barry Alvarez said in a statement. “Game day usually means getting together, but now, in order to protect our season and our community, we all need to cheer on the Badgers responsibly and in accordance with public health guidelines.”

University spokesperson Meredith McGlone reiterated that the school was discouraging students from gathering. 

Government officials in Madison seemed to have similar concerns about the potential for gatherings because of football. A statement from Public Health Madison and Dane County discouraged students and community members from gathering to watch a game.

“The increase in cases we are seeing is predominantly due to parties. Adding football parties into this mix is only going to make the situation worse,” Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said.

Part of the Big Ten’s plan is that all student-athletes, coaches and staff will receive daily antigen testing for COVID-19 and any positive test will be confirmed by a nasal swab test. The Big Ten plan does not say who will be conducting the confirmation testing, though McGlone said it is being “paid for and coordinated” by the conference and won’t interfere with the school’s student testing plan. 

The PHMDC release said that 42 players and staff on the team have already tested positive for the virus.

“We don’t expect the testing of student athletes to detract from our ability to operate our other testing,” McGlone said. “We continue to perform a high volume of tests – last week, the university performed about 2,400 tests per day, up from about 1,750 per day last week and about 1,200 per day at the start of campus testing.”

But UW-Madison is currently struggling to contain an outbreak of the virus on its campus. When they do get tested, the target is 72 hours but most students wait 24-48 hours, according to McGlone.

There are also concerns about student-athletes having access to rapid testing with results in a matter of hours while the majority of students are forced to wait — and potentially infect others during that time. 

In a press conference, Northwestern Athletic Director Jim Phillips, was asked by a Daily Northwestern student reporter why student-athletes deserve more access to testing and why student-athletes should be allowed on campus when first and second-year students have been barred. 

Phillips didn’t have an answer.

“That was a decision that was made, and not with a lot of dialogue and not with a, you know an awful lot of, you know, reflection on what that would mean (for non-athletes),” Phillips said. “In the end, this is something that the Big Ten is administering, and obviously we’re one of the institutions in the Big Ten, and so it’s a fair question, and I don’t know if I have an answer.” 

“This was a conference-wide decision, and as a member of the conference you just try to make the best decision that you can for your institution and, you know, we had our president obviously was involved and our trustees and, and there were a lot of people that made this decision,” he continued. “And so I would just say, it wasn’t done hastily, it was done with a lot of careful consideration.”

The Wisconsin Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (WVDL) is conducting the COVID-19 testing for UW-Madison so the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene can remain in use for the wider community. The veterinary lab’s director, Dr. Keith Poulsen, says he hasn’t heard anything from the university on the potential impact of athlete testing. 

“Really, we tell campus officials what our capacity is, and they assign where the samples come from,” Poulsen says. “I assume as our capacity increases with automation, we will see athletics samples, but we don’t know when specifically that will happen.”

Poulsen says the WVDL is a tool that university administration decides how to use and he hasn’t been in any discussions around prioritization of certain tests. So he was unable to answer how tests would be conducted if on a Saturday morning a number of athletes for either team set to play that day had a preliminary positive — or if football players’ tests would jump the line over other students to allow them to take the field. 

He added that tests are de-identified in his lab to abide by HIPPA regulations, so he wouldn’t know who the sample belongs to. 

Poulsen did say that the testing capacity at the WVDL is nearing its limit, but the school is also conducting testing with Exact Sciences and both labs are always working to increase capacity. But at its current level, if the WVDL is required to conduct additional tests of student athletes, resources will need to be allocated in a new way, Poulsen says. 

“The campus need is over our current capacity for daily testing,” he says. “To handle this, campus is using multiple labs and is constantly problem solving with development of alternative strategies. Adding more work to any system will change available resources for the established workload. The cost-benefit of testing specific groups is going to be debated by many.  At the WVDL/WSLH COVID lab on campus, we are trying to stay out of those politics and focus on the science and quality of COVID Diagnostics.”

Multiple representatives of the Big Ten Conference did not respond to a request for comment.

The season is scheduled to start the weekend of Oct. 23-24.