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How can Ole Miss football manage COVID-19 with fall camp beginning, students arriving back on campus and classes proceeding with in-person instruction?

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Internal athletic department protocol only goes so far.

Ole Miss Athletics

College football cannot be played unless COVID-19 is kept out of the locker room. This is by far the most important storyline for the entire 2020 season, especially as Ole Miss football opens its fall camp on Monday.

Ole Miss Athletics confirmed its first positive Coronavirus test during the first week of June, when players and staffers returned to campus. Less than two weeks later, nine players were in quarantine as a result of an additional positive result and contact tracing.

“From June 1, to about June 20...that two-and-a-half week period or so...we had about 10-11 percent of our athletes contract it after they got here to Oxford,” said Shannon Singletary, senior associate athletic director for health and sports performance to 247Sports.

With the Coronavirus protocols in place, those 35 student-athletes were held out of practices and workouts for 14 days. Since then, the cases have been mostly under control and workouts have proceeded as scheduled with the season on track to be played.

As of July 22nd, the entire Ole Miss athletic department (student-athletes and staff) reported five total cases. On Friday, August 7th, the football program alone reported six active cases of COVID-19 and 10 additional players in quarantine protocol after coming in close contact with an active case.

Clusters will continue to surface throughout the season and managing potential outbreak will be the most crucial part of the 2020 season. The concept is simple, and Major League Baseball has illustrated the threat— if teams see positive tests, they must not play.

If a college program cannot take the field on any given Saturday this fall, it will result in scheduling issues, roster issues and health issues and will derail the season. If multiple programs are facing those obstacles individually, it will result in the cancellation of the season.

The Southeastern Conference requires at least twice-weekly testing, and has laid out its protocols for quarantine and contact tracing. So far, it’s been pretty much the best case scenario. However, full team camp causes a new set of concerns. How can the school ensure that one positive test doesn’t take down the entire team during a full-contact scrimmage? What happens if an entire position group is forced into COVID-19 protocol as a result of a singular player receiving a positive test? The questions continue, and there may not be answers until a potential problem becomes reality.

Without a bubble (thank the NCAA for dropping the ball on that one), the only way to ensure positive tests stay at a minimum is through trust. Players must keep to themselves, wear a mask, and keep themselves away from risk. That goes from the star quarterback, all the way down to the third-string long snapper.

When the student-athletes are the only group of people back on campus, that risk can be managed fairly well. There is now another problem that is now at the forefront, however.

All students are back on campus.

Student-athletes, as a result of the ‘student’ portion of their title, must continue in-person classes and life on campus with the rest of their academic counterparts. That means that not only must student-athletes be trusted to minimize their own risk, but trust must be placed in other non-athlete students to keep distanced from the athletes, wear a mask, and avoid virus hotspots. As we’ve already seen around the country, that won’t happen.

College kids are going to party, believe in their own invincibility and proceed with reckless abandon. Bars are going to open with financial survival in mind. Fraternities and sororities are going to host meals for their large-membered chapters. Hallways in academic buildings are going to flood with students heading to and from class. Friends are going to dap one another up and hug each other in passing. Dormitories are cess pools when there isn’t a pandemic. Asymptomatic carriers will not follow protocol. The list goes on.

This may not seem like a problem for the athletes unless they too join in on the partying and don’t keep to themselves, and it may not be. However, by being forced to participate in everyday campus life, the risk of contacting the virus is higher. If a student in class is an asymptomatic carrier, he or she could pass the virus to a fellow classmate while walking through the door out of class together. If that classmate is an athlete, he could unknowingly bring it to the locker room. If it reaches the locker room, the season could be at risk.

At this point in time, it’s a lot of “ifs”, a lot of speculation and a lot of what the NCAA, conferences, schools, medical professionals and the media alike have been saying for weeks. There is no telling what will happen, and this situation is one that will see a lot of problem solving in real time.

Ole Miss and its COVID-19 protocol execution has been above-standard and resulted in minimal positive tests since the athletes have arrived back on campus, but the athletic department’s diligence only extends so far. With fall camp opening on Monday, a lot of things need to fall into place for the 2020 college football season to be played as scheduled.