Iowa State Cyclones

How many COVID-19 cases would be too many for Big 12 football teams?

Conference has yet to determine guidelines for postponements or cancellations

A Big 12 logo is seen on a pylon at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)
A Big 12 logo is seen on a pylon at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

AMES — The Big 12’s decision to move forward with a fall football season was only the first step in the process of actually playing football amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now the conference must sort out and tighten down the nuts and bolts of how it will pull this off.

For instance, how many positive tests will it take for a team to postpone or forfeit a game?

Big 12 players will be tested three times a week — Sunday, Wednesday and Friday — and before every game athletics directors and team doctors will have to provide proof that nobody on the field has tested positive in the most recent tests.

But what happens if a team has a minor — or major — outbreak?

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby didn’t have a concrete answer during a conference call last Wednesday.

“I don’t have a number,” Bowlsby said. “We’ve talked about it. We talked about a 50-to-60-person roster that’s considered essential participants. If you think about the offensive and defensive line, it’s difficult to plug and play people at those positions on short notice. If you had a bunch of people out in those position groups, you wonder if you could play. We asked the coaches to talk about that and decide what it would look like.”

It sounds like the Big 12 will go with a specific number for a position group that could trigger a postponement or cancellation and/or a total team number.

But Bowlsby did recognize the importance of concrete numbers because if a team’s starting quarterback is out, he doesn’t want a coach to use that as an excuse to then cancel the game if the rest of the team is healthy.

“It may be decided by a number, but it also may be decided by other factors,” Bowlsby said. “If all your quarterbacks live together and they’re in the same conference room and they’re all, all of the sudden infected, then it’d be hard for that team to go forward.”

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Positive COVID-19 tests are, at this point, a given on each team. So if one team does have an outbreak, the Big 12 will need to decide whether to postpone or cancel the game.

Big 12 teams have a modified schedule of one nonconference game and nine conference games. There are bye weeks in case of an outbreak so teams will have the ability and time to properly get everyone healthy.

“I think it’ll also be dependent upon whether or not the games can be rescheduled,” Bowlsby said. “Early in the season, you can reschedule. But as we get later in the season, there won’t be opportunity to do that. We’ll have to make that decision in real time.”

One of the keys for the Big 12 plan is having fast, accurate tests so that everyone on the field knows they’re safe.

The NBA and Yale worked together to develop a new, saliva-based test that’s faster, cheaper and less invasive than the nasal swab method that’s most common now. With the FDA granting it emergency approval, the test could be a game-changer in the Big 12 plan to safely play football this fall.

“(COVID-19) testing is one of the places where I expect we’ll see a lot of evolution over the course of the football season,” Bowlsby said. “There’s every indication that testing technology, availability and reliability will continue to improve.”

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