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The NCAA announced Thursday comprehensive COVID-19 testing guidelines that will last throughout the 2020 college football season. Those minimum guidelines include testing requirements, response strategies, contact-tracing methods and specific protocols for games to be canceled amid numerous positive tests for the coronavirus.

The recommendations from the NCAA include daily self-health checks; the use of face coverings and adherence to social distancing guidelines during training; testing strategies before the season, during the regular season and during the postseason; testing and results within 72 hours in "high risk" sports (including football); and adherence to local health standards. 

"When we made the extremely difficult decision to cancel last spring's championships it was because there was simply no way to conduct them safely," said NCAA president Mark Emmert. "This document lays out the advice of health care professionals as to how to resume college sports if we can achieve an environment where COVID-19 rates are manageable. Today, sadly, the data point in the wrong direction. If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic."

Football players will be subject to a PCR test within 72 hours of competition. If a PCR test can't be performed within that window, games should be postponed, canceled or an alternate method of testing will be developed and agreed upon. Any player who tests positive for the coronavirus will be forced to isolate for 10 days and only allowed to return to action after at least three days without symptoms. Players who are found to have been in "high-risk" contact with others who have tested positive will have to quarantine for 14 days. High-risk contact is defined as being within six feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes in which one or more individuals are not wearing masks.

The NCAA listed recommendations for exercise for infected players during isolation. Players who test positive but have no symptoms and players who are quarantined due to contact tracing will be allowed to exercise as long as it does not cause cardiopulmonary symptoms. Athletes with mild symptoms similar to the common cold won't be allowed to exercise for 10 days or longer if the symptoms persist. Those with moderate symptoms will not be allowed to exercise for 14 days or more of symptoms persist. 

Practices are encouraged to take place outside as much as possible due to studies that indicate transmission is much more likely inside buildings. Face coverings will be encouraged during practices. When face coverings cannot be tolerated, schools will enforce strict 6-foot social distancing. 

Schools will be encouraged to train in "functional units." Those units may be composed of five to 10 individuals who consistently workout and participate in activities together. Those individuals would then be considered "high risk" only to each other as long as proper sanitization procedures are in place. The NCAA also is suggesting coaches to use electronic whistles during practices and games.

"Any recommendation on a pathway toward a safe return to sport will depend on the national trajectory of COVID-19 spread," said NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline. "The idea of sport resocialization is predicated on a scenario of reduced or flattened infection rates."

The guidelines suggest game or seasons could be suspended if:

  • Schools are unable to isolate or quarantine athletes or staff members
  • Schools cannot test weekly
  • Campuses and/or communities are deemed unsafe by health officials
  • Schools cannot perform adequate contact tracing
  • Health officials state concerns about potential strain on the local health system

The NCAA and Power Five conferences would also require game officials to be tested weekly due to the close contact they have with athletes during competition. In addition to testing, the NCAA recommends that same-day travel should be considered when feasible.

The release comes on the same day that the AAC announced its football players must be tested at least 72 hours prior to competition. "We are committed to meeting or exceeding all guidelines and standards recommended by the NCAA and its member institutions in all fall sports, including football," said AAC commissioner Mike Aresco.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 have already announced that they will be going with conference-only football schedules for the 2020 season. The SEC, ACC and Big 12 are expected to make decisions about any schedule changes by the end of July.

"The ability to have reliable, available and timely testing … in order to facilitate what may come, the opportunity to play, that reality around testing is going to be very, very important," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said recently.

Sankey affirmed that the Power Five conferences have been working for "weeks and months" in developing uniform COVID-19 standards and added that the NCAA has been developing similar standards for all member institutions in the days since a July 1 hearing in front of the Senate Commerce Committee.

"The lack of a unified response from the NCAA may result in what we see playing out in the states, a patchwork of mandatory and voluntary guidelines potentially resulting in spikes and transmission of the virus in some states and some schools and not in others," Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-NV) said. "Some colleges test their students every week, only when they have symptoms. We need a strategy generally for the coronavirus."

At the time of the hearing, athletes had been returning to campuses across the country for a month to begin voluntary workouts, and several programs had publicly revealed that student-athletes had tested positive for the coronavirus. Other programs have chosen not to reveal if any -- or how many -- of their athletes have contracted the coronavirus. All the while, there was no instruction from the NCAA and individual conferences on how to test athletes or react when cases are discovered.

There may ultimately be varying protocols among leagues outside the Power Five, and even the procedures released Thursday by the NCAA and Power Five are just minimum testing guidelines. That would seem to indicate a slim likelihood of Power Five conferences playing any games against Group of Five or FCS opponents this season.

The establishment of NCAA guidelines and uniform expectations among Power Five schools would clearly be a boost to the viability of 2020 college football season and the hope of it being contested on a level playing field rather than on a patchwork of protocols varying from school to school.