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In a pandemic, college football faces a much different challenge than pro football

Rams coach Sean McVay is just the latest to voice his frustrations and concerns over how the NFL is planning to combat COVID-19 once the season starts.

The NFL remains highly optimistic that it will be able to play its games in 2020. And while college football, on the surface, also is utilizing a similar full-steam-ahead approach, recent developments have taken some of the helium out of the balloon.

Throughout the country, players are testing positive during voluntary workouts, to the point where multiple programs have simply shut it down. As one source with knowledge of the NFL’s approach to playing in a pandemic recently suggested, outbreaks at places like Clemson likely trace to the weight room, with thick air and aggressive breathing sends droplets into the air, where they hang until they can enter the eyes or noses of someone else.

The NFL understands dynamics like this because the league’s and union’s doctors have been working for three-plus months to understand how the virus works and to design protocols for the 32 teams to limit the spread of the virus and to react quickly and consistently when there’s an outbreak. The college level lacks the same degree of coordination and collective expertise when it comes to crafting procedures and ensuring that they are followed to the letter.

Some schools undoubtedly have figured it out, and we’re not hearing about them having outbreaks. (Some schools arguably have just been lucky.) The NCAA and/or the various conferences need to figure out the schools that have figured out how to safely prepare for football season and how to safely stage games for there to be even a chance to get the season started, much less finished.

Another factor relates to the maturity of professional athletes relative to college athletes. It will be much more difficult to get 18-to-20-year-old players to do the things they need to do to avoid catching, and then spreading, the virus than it will be to get men in their 20s and 30s to do what needs to be done.

The disconnect comes from the reality that players who test positive will always be quarantined, even if they never develop symptoms. So even if the players face little or no risk of dying from the virus, the virus is regarded as a sufficiently serious public-health risk to make unwise an approach consisting of allowing the virus to wash through all rosters, and to react only in the relatively rare event that someone gets sick.

The problem is that allowing the virus to wash through a team will potentially result in the virus washing through the student body and, eventually, the city in which the school is located. Thus, the challenge becomes getting players to show sufficient concern about avoiding a virus that most likely won’t affect them if they catch it, other than to keep them out of practice or off the field for a couple of weeks.

For plenty of players, the risk of losing playing time will be a major factor when it comes to complying with measures to avoid the virus. Whether it will be enough to override the hard-wired mindset of young men caught between high school and adulthood remains to be seen.

As noted this week, ESPN’s decision to wait to announce its Monday Night Football announcing team shows that the network, which holds the broadcasting rights to a significant number of college football games, realize that there’s still a chance pro football will happen and college football won’t, allowing ESPN to shift Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit from the top ESPN college game of the week to its lone NFL game.