College Football Kicks Off With Patchwork of COVID-19 Protocols

College Football Kicks Off With Patchwork of COVID-19 Protocols
portrait of Dean Golembeski
By Dean Golembeski

Published on September 9, 2021

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The 2021 college football season kicked off Labor Day weekend in stadiums packed with students and supporters clearly excited to cheer on their teams.

After a COVID-fractured 2020 season in which there were few fans in the stands, week one saw nearly 110,000 fill Michigan Stadium, 91,113 in attendance at Texas's Royal-Memorial Stadium and 68,123 rooting at the Rose Bowl. Week two promises even larger crowds as big-time programs such as Notre Dame, Alabama, and Ohio State play their home openers.

When asked about full football stadiums during a Tuesday interview on CNN, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Director Dr. Anthony Fauci said, "I don't think it's smart."

As the pandemic stretches into the fall, the 2021 season will be played under a patchwork of COVID-19 protocols that will force teams and fans to make adjustments or pay a price.

The NCAA set the tone Aug. 4, releasing guidelines for fall sports. However they are not rules that can be enforced, leaving each conference and their member schools to develop their own policies. Fans, meanwhile, face regulations developed and enforced by the home team's university.

Conference Develop Their Own Policies — and Sanctions

Among the NCAA's recommendations are that fully vaccinated individuals not be tested regularly for COVID-19 unless they have close contact with a confirmed case or a team has sustained transmission of the virus. The guidelines also recommended that unvaccinated college athletes be tested weekly for COVID-19, wear masks in most situations, and be quarantined if exposed to the virus.

Each of the Football Bowl Subdivision's 11 conferences has since developed its own policies and sanctions for the season. For instance, the Pac-12 does not require coaches and players to be vaccinated. Commissioner George Kliakoff said vaccinations are a private decision for individuals. The conference then announced on Aug. 12 that any team unable to play due to COVID-19 protocol might have to forfeit its game.

"If an institution is unable to play a contest through its own fault, it shall forfeit such contest to its opponent," a statement from the league said. "Any forfeit shall be regarded as a conference loss for the team making the forfeit and a conference win for its opponent. The Pac-12 rule provides the commissioner with discretion to determine whether an institution is at fault or primarily at fault for an inability to play a contest based on the facts of the situation."

Big Ten schools are empowered to develop their own COVID-19 policies. Like the Pac-12, the league announced on Aug. 23 that any school unable to field a team due to COVID-19 will receive a forfeit, the game will not be rescheduled, and the team will take a loss in the league standings. The Atlantic Coast Conference, American Athletic Conference, the Big 12, the Mountain West, and the Sun Belt Conference have implemented similar forfeiture policies.

The Southeastern Conference also put a similar policy in place, but with a slight twist. Iif a team can't play due to a lack of players or coaches or an outbreak of the virus, it will have to pay the opposing school for the lost revenue. In effect, it's an incentive for schools to get as many players and staff vaccinated as possible.

Rules for College Sports Fans Vary Widely

Just like the teams they follow, many fans will face new rules on game day. Others, however, will see virtually no difference between the 2019 season and this season.

The University of Hawaii has the strictest policy, announcing on Aug. 20 that no fans will be allowed to attend home sporting events due to the rise in COVID-19 cases in the state. That decision was made for the university by city and county officials in Honolulu.

"We are disappointed because we were looking forward to playing in front of our fans again," UH Athletics Director David Matlin said. "However, we understand the decision was made in the best interest of public safety and can only hope the restrictions will be lifted when the time is right."

Tulane University was the first FBS school to announce it would require proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test for fans attending games. Oregon and Oregon State soon followed with similar mandates. The Oregon schools also will require everyone age 5 and over to wear masks.

Ohio State University, for instance, requires all staff and students to be vaccinated, but it says fans will not be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative test to attend home games this season. Elsewhere in the Big Ten, Penn State University fans attending home games won't be required to wear masks, nor will proof of vaccination or a negative test be required.

"We have to be smart and understand that the virus is with us, and we need to use our good judgment around that," Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour said.

Meanwhile at Syracuse University, the school is expecting full capacity in the Carrier Dome when it plays at home. There will be no social distancing, but because it's an indoor venue, anyone who isn't vaccinated has to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test. In addition to a rapid test within six hours of entry, a PCR test result is also required within 72 hours of entering the stadium. A similar policy is in place at Louisiana State University where large football crowds are expected at Tiger Stadium.

"While we are aware of the diverse perspectives across the nation regarding masks and vaccinations, we must take all reasonable measures to protect our campus and community," LSU President William F. Tate IV said. "The current threat to our lives, our health, and to our medical systems due to COVID-19 is overburdening our hospitals, and we must do our part to stop the spread."

Mixed Reactions From Fans

As might be expected, fan reaction to the various policies has been mixed.

On the SB Nation website, where sports fans can express their opinions, a columnist said Ohio State "dropped the ball" by refusing to make either vaccinations or a negative COVID-19 test a requirement for those attending football games at Ohio Stadium.

"Would I like to never have to think about wearing a mask again in my life? Absolutely. The problem is, too many of us aren't doing enough. The delta variant is ripping through Columbus and the rest of Ohio, with it being clear who is most affected by the more contagious strain of COVID-19 — the unvaccinated," wrote columnist Brett Ludwiczak.

At the University of Alabama, where there will be no restrictions on those attending football games despite the state's high COVID infection rates, fans reacted to the policy established by SEC rival LSU.

"I am very surprised LSU would take this on, as passionate as their fans are at Tiger stadium. This wouldn't work in Tuscaloosa because we would have to hire a thousand more police officers to enforce it," Tuscaloosa City Council president Kip Tyner told WIAT TV. Last year, Alabama fans were required to wear a mask and stadium capacity was limited to 20%.

Alabama graduate student Emilia Stuart, meanwhile, had a different opinion on the restrictions put in place by LSU.

"Personally, I think any added security measures to make us feel as normal as possible is something I am a big fan of," she said. "We need to keep our fans safe so I agree with the move to be vaccinated to get into a football game."


Feature Image: Tim Warner / Contributor / Getty Images Sport

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