Late last week NCAA President Mark Emmert introduced a new COVID-19 testing protocol that collegiate conferences will need to abide by if they wish to hold fall sports in 2020. “Every school [must] test every athlete going forward into competition at least once a week, and no more than 72 hours before any competition,” he said. “If they can’t get [results] back within a 72-hour period, they simply can’t compete.” Coronavirus continues to spread unchecked throughout many parts of the country, so stringent testing requirements are necessary to keep players safe (though one could certainly argue testing once/week is not nearly enough). But conversations with a trio of D-I athletic directors (including UC-Davis’s Kevin Blue) indicated that the limitations—“whether they be financial or supply-chain driven—may make it hard for many schools [to meet the NCAA’s testing mandate]” (which helps to explain why fall sports are likely to be canceled this week).
Our Take: University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins’s efforts to help guide higher education through the COVID-19 pandemic have proven beneficial to the school’s athletic department. Athletic Director Dave Heeke explained, “We’ve been fortunate. Because the university has been among the leaders [in trying to manage the Coronavirus on college campuses] since the beginning, we have built up a very high level of testing capability on our campus.” Arizona has also been aggressive in pursuing alternative sources of funding for their testing program (think: research grants and donations). While the U of A does “contribute a little bit” to the costs of testing their athletes, they are spending far less than many of their Power 5 brethren.
Power Five schools may be able to carry the unanticipated expense (testing availability is a whole separate issue). But that’s unlikely to be the case at institutions with fewer resources. New Mexico State is among the schools at the G-5 level who will struggle to fund regular testing. NMSU does not yet have COVID-19 testing capabilities on campus, and because the NCAA mandate requires results back within 72 hours, the school likely won’t be able to lean on the New Mexico Department of Health (who executed and funded the testing on student-athletes upon their return to campus and again following an outbreak on the football team) for help. The DOH simply can’t turn the tests around fast enough—particularly as case numbers within the state continue to rise.
The rapid testing protocol that NMSU has been following to test symptomatic players (done at a local hospital) would enable the school to meet the NCAA’s requirements; it produces same day results. But even at $55/test, the cost is prohibitive (for perspective, the NBA is said to be paying +/- $140). University A.D. Mario Moccia said his athletic department simply “hasn’t budgeted to test all of [its] competing student-athletes once a week.” It’s worth noting that the Big Ten players don’t see testing once/week as sufficient and are pushing for “three days per week” (naturally, that would increase the cost for the schools by 3x).
While the NMSU A.D. said he would “have to wait and see what the campus testing options are going to look like and what [the athletic department’s] budget can handle [before determining if the school can meet the guidelines],” it’s possible—if not likely—that the NCAA’s standards will prevent all but the “schools with jumbo budgets” from playing this fall. Remember, NMSU has already lost $2.7 million in non-conference football guarantee game fees. “If it’s going to [cost] another $500K to test all of our student-athletes, that could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. [The NMSU athletic department] is getting to the point where we’re starting to count every penny,” Moccia said. To be clear, he isn’t denying the necessity of testing. He’s just not sure his program (or many others outside the P5) will be able to afford the costs associated with compliance. Moving fall sports to the spring with hopes that the costs associated with testing decline might be the best option for schools like his.
In the case of University of California-Davis athletics, testing concerns are also about availability. The school’s athletic department has a strong partnership with UC-Davis Health, and the hospital and health care provider is operating testing protocols for all students (i.e. not just the athletes). But a “national reagent shortage” that is impacting testing capability in Northern California has meant that UC-Davis Health is prioritizing symptomatic patients over asymptomatic athletes. The school’s Athletic Director Kevin Blue said that’s not a problem unique to Davis. “There doesn’t appear to be many situations around the country right now, where there is a free-and-clear supply of testing, and that’s a significant issue for those planning to play fall sports—even for those who can manage the financial aspects of the NCAA’s protocol,” Blue said. There’s an argument to be made that even if athletic departments can get their hands on enough tests to meet the mandate, it’d be unethical for academic institutions tests on asymptomatic athletes as long as there is a shortage of testing capacity for those at greater risk. Remember, the NBA has largely managed to blunt the negative attention associated with doing just that by funding testing in their teams’ local markets (something most schools won’t be able to do).
It should be noted the lack of testing supply won’t have too much of an impact on UC-Davis athletics—at least not until 2021. The Big West has announced they will be moving fall sports to the spring semester. The Big Sky, the school’s football conference, plans to do the same (at least for football).
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