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What to make of the MLB coronavirus outbreak: And what to think about next, as start of college football looms

Is NCAA football vulnerable?

Corey Dickerson of the Miami Marlins hits a solo home run in the top of the sixth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on July 26, 2020.
Corey Dickerson of the Miami Marlins hits a solo home run in the top of the sixth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on July 26, 2020. (2020 Getty Images)

Those working to get college sports up and running have been hoping the return of professional sports would provide valuable information that could aid their efforts to play through a pandemic.

And yet, a COVID-19 outbreak for a Major League Baseball team, the Miami Marlins, just three days into the season is now forcing games to be postponed -- and has brought a glimpse of how difficult the task could be.

“We’re still learning things and this is a data point, there’s no doubt about that,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “We’re doing what our scientists and doctors are telling us to do. Move forward slowly and constantly re-evaluate.

“I think this will just be the new normal. There will be ebbs and flows and there’ll be disruptions.”

Like MLB — and unlike the NBA, NHL, WNBA and MLS — college sports will try to conduct their seasons outside a controlled, virus-free bubble. The first major college football games are a little more than a month away.

COVID-19 flare-ups have shut down voluntary workouts throughout July at about two dozen major college football programs, including Ohio State, North Carolina, Kansas State and Houston.

Last week, Michigan State and Rutgers both announced positive tests among players and staff led to 14-day quarantine for their entire teams.

Full-blown practices for teams trying to start their seasons around the Labor Day weekend will begin by early next week.

Greater challenges lie ahead -- and what happened to the Marlins could be an ominous sign, said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University.

“The biggest thing that I see is this is a demonstration of just how quickly COVID-19 can rip through a clubhouse and a team, even in a sport like baseball, where practices and games are pretty conducive to physical distancing,” Binney said. “It’s definitely alarming. You have to expect things would look even worse in a sport like football where the practices have contact, the games have contact and you have bigger rosters. Because the virus getting into a team is just a numbers game. The more people you have, the more likely it sneaks in.”

The Miami Marlins outbreak rippled through baseball. Not only was their home opener with Baltimore postponed, but so was the Phillies’ game against the Yankees. The Marlins played at Philadelphia on Sunday after several players tested positive, and the next day, the total number of positive players and staffers was more than a dozen.

Lucia Mullen, an epidemiologist and senior analyst at Johns Hopkins University, said there could be lessons to take from how soon those teams are competing again.

“The next kind of pinnacle that other sports should be looking at is, did they find (the infected) fast enough? Were they able to find all potential cases and stop the spread there or have they been too slow in their testing, in their contact tracing, that someone slipped through and we’re going to see more and more cases pop up?” Mullen said. “Because if that’s the case, we’re not testing enough.”

Recent NCAA guidelines recommended testing college football players once a week during the season, within 72 hours of a game. The Power Five conferences are working on their own protocols which make a similar recommendation.

Whether that is enough to prevent outbreaks that shut down teams, especially when more students return to campuses and college towns, remains to be seen.

Clinical aspects aside, college sports could benefit from a few smooth weeks of MLB playing and NFL opening training camps. If pro leagues struggle to keep their teams operating, questions about playing with unpaid college students will arise.

Bowlsby said having worked on bringing back college sports since March, he tries to avoid overvaluing singular events such as the Marlins’ outbreak.

“Any good news is welcome. Any bad news is not surprising,” Bowlsby said. “I didn’t have an emotional reaction to it. I think we learned something from it. I was not surprised at all that there were positive tests. There will be positive tests in other sports, too. There will be positive tests on campuses when students return and within athletics programs.

“If it gets to the point where it’s not at all manageable, then we’ll have to adjust in real time. And that adjustment could be everything from changes in schedules, changes in current practices to a discontinuation of the activities.”