UW football practice

Members of Wyoming's football team stretch at the beginning of practice on Oct. 2, 2019, at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie. UW is scheduled to begin preseason camp for the 2020 season later this week.

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LARAMIE — The NBA and the NHL have defeated the novel coronavirus.

OK, that’s a stretch. But given the way the rest of America is struggling to contain the spread of COVID-19, those two sports leagues can at least say they’ve started to figure it out.

During a time when testing positive is as common as the summer heat, the NBA has gone two consecutive weeks without any of the 690 players it tested during that time doing so, the league announced Wednesday. Meanwhile, the NHL has reportedly performed roughly 1,500 tests per day for the last week in its hub cities with no players testing positive.

Though nothing is coronavirus-proof, it’s a desperately needed positive development in the sports world that can be credited to both leagues deciding to go into a “bubble,” a centralized location where players live and compete in environments closed off to the outside world. The NBA, which restarted its abbreviated season Thursday, is playing all of its games at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, while the NHL, which started back Saturday, has moved all of its teams to Canada (Eastern Conference teams to Toronto and Western Conference teams to Edmonton).

It makes you wonder what Major League Baseball was thinking. Granted, it’s difficult to sell grown men on separating from their families to go hole up somewhere hundreds if not thousands of miles away for months — and Major League Baseball did entertain the idea at one point only for players to balk at it — but players in the NBA and NHL saw the bigger picture (and, frankly, wanted to get paid) while baseball is dealing with potentially a big problem.

Less than a week into the start of the 60-game season, the Miami Marlins had at least 15 players and coaches test positive, an outbreak that’s caused the team to cancel every game since its win over the Philadelphia Phillies last Sunday. The Phillies and the St. Louis Cardinals have also postponed their seasons after having multiple players and staff members test positive. Multiple players, including Milwaukee Brewers veteran outfielder Lorenzo Cain, have already opted out of the season.

Given the success the NBA and NHL have had containing the spread of the virus with their return-to-play plans, it begs the question: If going into a bubble could save the college football season, why doesn’t the sport just do it?

Let’s be real for a second: College football players are different from other student-athletes. They play the sport responsible for funding the millions-of-dollars-a-year resuscitator that athletic departments need to be hooked up to in order to survive. Unless you’re a basketball blueblood like Duke or Kentucky, no other athletic program at your school is coming close to bringing in that kind of dough.

But football players don’t get paid for the revenue they generate. At least, not anything more than what’s allowed by the NCAA (i.e. the full cost of a scholarship). So in that sense, they’re just like every other student-athlete, a term the association as well as its member institutions love to throw around as a way to remind us just how much athletes are like everyone else on campus.

In other words, student-athletes are amateurs, which is why putting college football players in a bubble isn’t going to happen.

It’s comical coming from college sports’ governing body, which, as recently as the 2017 fiscal year, raked in more than $1 billion in revenue, but strict amateurism — or at least the idea of it — is a hill the NCAA has made clear it’s willing to die on. Since football players are part of the regular student body, they have to be treated as such.

The University of Wyoming is among several colleges across the country that plans to bring students back for in-person classes this fall. Should the school follow through with that plan, how then would it justify online classes and isolation for football players while subjecting the rest of the student body to further exposure by requiring them to attend classes on campus?

UW and other college football programs began bringing their players back to campus in June to begin voluntary workouts in hopes that the season would start on time, but even with necessary safety protocols in place, it wasn’t the best look considering many schools have gone online-only with summer course instruction. UW announced in April that it was extending its virtual learning structure through Aug. 14.

But as Jon Wilner of The Mercury News recently pointed out, even schools that intend to extend remote course instruction to the fall semester haven’t completely shut down their campuses. Certain buildings and facilities, including student housing, remain open. And since they can be accessed by all students, it’s something football and other sports could point to as justification for having their athletes back on campus so soon.

There can’t be preferential treatment. Not unless schools are OK with acknowledging that football players are their most valuable student-athletes from a financial standpoint by taking extra measures to protect them, but that would be saying the silent part out loud and thus shaking the foundation of amateurism on which the NCAA likes to claim it’s built.

Good luck with that.

It’s part of the reason why UW women’s soccer coach Pete Cuadrado told me last week he’s not convinced it would be all that easy for college sports’ governing body to cancel everything but football this fall.

“I think in the public eye that becomes a pretty hard thing,” Cuadrado said. “Title IX laws become pretty tough if you’re going to say football is OK to play but other sports aren’t. So I guess I feel like they’re not going to give up on us unless they give up on football, and then everybody’s in trouble at that point.

“I think if anything, my gut feeling — and this is my personal opinion — is if they do end up canceling games this fall, they move it to the spring. Nobody wants to, but everybody knows revenue is better than no revenue.”

It’s also why conferences have already taken it upon themselves to create something as close to a bubble as they can if there is a football season.

The Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC and ACC have announced conference-only schedules or something close to it. Even the ACC’s “plus-one” scheduling model calls for each team to play its lone non-conference game in its home state. The Big 12, the only Power Five conference yet to make any alterations to its football schedules, will almost certainly propose something similar.

Conference USA is reportedly still willing to let its teams play a full non-conference schedule. While it’s understandable that Group of Five schools with smaller operating budgets than their Power Five counterparts would want to maximize revenue opportunities by keeping as many games as possible, holding onto non-conference games that require significant travel feels like a pipe dream at this point.

By limiting schedules to conference play and maybe a non-conference game in close proximity — think the Border War times two — teams can stick to more regional trips, and conferences can put themselves in more control of the situation by implementing their own testing and safety protocols. Conference-only slates would also make it easier for leagues to work with their teams to move games around should any need to be rescheduled during the season.

And I guess coaches could try to take controlling the environment a step further by threatening some sort of discipline or even the loss of a scholarship if players risk more exposure by going to house parties or any other off-campus social functions attended by your typical college student, but, again, we’re talking about unpaid athletes. That won’t fly, and good luck keeping word of playing that kind of hardball off the recruiting trail.

So since college football can’t be put in a true bubble, teams have to be prepared. All of UW’s football players and coaches have already tested negative for COVID-19, and athletic director Tom Burman said the plan is to test them all again before preseason camp, which is scheduled to start late this week.

Players and coaches will almost certainly have to be tested weekly if there is a season of some kind. And players will have to use their discretion when deciding where to go and how many people they’re comfortable being around when they’re not at practice or in class.

It’s up to the teams to take as many precautions as possible so that they do everything they can to try to keep the bubble from popping on their season. Even if they can’t call it that.

Follow UW athletics beat writer Davis Potter on Twitter at @DavisEPotter.

This article originally ran on trib.com.


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