Miguel Cardona, the U.S. Secretary of Education, has his own team. It scours the nation to look for best COVID-19 practices and strong leadership at schools and universities, and the Ole Miss football team’s 100% vaccination rate caught Cardona’s attention.
Then he noticed the same at Boston College. And Arizona.
“It’s one thing to talk about it,” Cardona said, “it’s another to highlight the folks that are doing it.”
As college football officially begins Saturday with five games — including Cardona’s alma mater, UConn, traveling to Fresno State — the sport enters a second season in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. While the surging delta variant continues to cause disruptions, hospitalizations and deaths, and low vaccination rates remain in pockets of the country where some of the nation’s top teams play, educational and athletic leaders continue to urge players and coaches to get vaccinated.
“It works, it’s effective, we’re past that,” Cardona told ESPN on Wednesday. “It received its final FDA approval. Right now it’s about health and safety. When you talk about the impact of college football, it’s really a part of our fabric as a country to enjoy college athletics, college football. It’s more than just a game. It’s a culture, it’s a sense of community that college football provides.
“Regardless of your political ideology, you can get around and cheer for a team and engage with one another,” he said. “We don’t want to disrupt that. We don’t want to disrupt that for the athletes who have worked their whole lives to make it to that team. We don’t want to disrupt their games, we don’t want to disrupt their season, but we also want to make sure our fans and those who go to support our athletes have an opportunity to reengage in that sense of community we know college football provides.”
As campuses across the country continue to adjust their COVID-19 protocols, fans, teams and athletic administrators face varying rules and expectations. The good news? This fall will look more like 2019 than last season, with a majority of schools welcoming back full stadiums, tailgates and the game-day traditions that make each fall Saturday unique.
“Our plan is for capacity,” Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour said. “I’m going to remember last spring, saying we want to get to the point where everyone who wants and can get a ticket can come in, and that’s where we stand right and right now.”
At Beaver Stadium, fans won’t need proof of vaccination or a mask to enter, but that’s not the case everywhere.
Based on conversations with decision-makers across the sport, in addition to announcements that have been made and policies that have been set by conference medical advisory groups, here’s a look at what will return to normal, and what pandemic protocols have been added or will remain in place:
Vaccination requirements for fans
In early July, Syracuse announced its plans to allow full capacity in the Carrier Dome with no social distancing, but because it’s an indoor venue, the return came with a caveat — 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.
Earlier this month, Tulane became 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 this fall. About a week later, Oregon and Oregon State followed with the same mandate, and are currently the only schools in the Pac-12 with a vaccination/negative COVID-19 test policy as a stipulation to attend football games.
“We’ve had a mixed reaction,” Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said. “The majority have been favorable. I’ve had a number of people walk up and thank me … for announcing what we’re doing. At the same time, we have received a number of emails and calls from people who are disappointed in the position of public health to add these parameters.”
It’s possible Washington and Washington State could follow, along with the California-based schools, but nothing was mandated as of Wednesday.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some of the most glaring statistics are found in the SEC’s footprint, where nine states — Arkansas, Missouri, Georgia, South Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky — are among the 22 states with highest percentage of unvaccinated adults, with each at 32% or more. On Tuesday, LSU became the first school in the SEC to announce it will require all Tiger Stadium guests 12 years and older to provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours prior to entry. Masks are also required for children ages 5 to 11 years old.
“We have the best fans in college football, and we are doing everything we can to ensure their experience in Tiger Stadium this fall is safe and enjoyable,” athletic director Scott Woodward said in a prepared statement. “When our fans arrive on Saturdays to cheer on the Tigers, they will have confidence that we have taken measures to mitigate their health risks. Our football team has reached 99.1% vaccination, and we are incredibly proud of them for doing their part to protect their team and their community. We are confident our fans will do the same, and I encourage all Tiger fans to receive vaccinations today.”
Like it is in the Big Ten, an SEC spokesman said it’s up to each campus to decide if it wants to require vaccinations for fans.
“We’re talking about what everybody’s sharing, best practices, so we are aware of what everybody’s doing,” said Herb Vincent, the SEC’s associate commissioner of communications. “It’s up to the school to make those decisions locally — on capacities, on COVID protocols for fans — those are local decisions based on state and local guidelines.”
A Big 12 spokesman told ESPN on Tuesday that none of the schools in the conference are currently requiring fans to show proof of vaccination before attending games, and all of them are planning for full-capacity crowds.
Vaccination protocols for teams
Earlier this month, the NCAA recommended that unvaccinated college athletes should be tested weekly for COVID-19, wear masks in most situations and be quarantined if exposed to the virus, while vaccinated individuals can avoid routine testing.
The policies throughout each conference have followed that guidance, but the leagues have approached it differently.
The Big Ten presidents and chancellors agreed in June on a “decentralized process,” which allows each school in the league to develop its own COVID-19 policies. At Ohio State, where coach Ryan Day said only about 10 Buckeyes remain unvaccinated, vaccinated players are required to be tested only if they have symptoms or were in close contact with someone who tested positive. If symptomatic, the individual will need to isolate until receiving COVID-19 test results.
Vaccinated players at Ohio State are not subject to quarantine through contact tracing, which should cut down on the number of players forced to miss game time. Instead, if a vaccinated player at Ohio State is exposed to an infected person, he has to monitor symptoms and be tested within three to five days.
The SEC has beefed up its vaccination policy by eliminating its previous benchmark of an 85% vaccination rate for teams. Under the earlier policy, anyone who was a part of a team that was 85% vaccinated no longer had to participate in the COVID-19 testing surveillance, as long as they were asymptomatic.
Now, unvaccinated student-athletes, coaches and support staff will undergo weekly surveillance testing — regardless of how much of the rest of the team is vaccinated — and they are required to wear masks in the athletic facilities.
In the ACC, any unvaccinated player on a team that has reached an 85% vaccination rate has to complete at least one PCR test each week. Any unvaccinated players in the ACC who are on teams below the 85% threshold have to be tested three times a week.
Fully vaccinated student-athletes, staff and officials can resume activities within athletic facilities without masks or physically distancing, except where otherwise dictated by state/local authorities. Non-immunized student-athletes, staff and officials must remain masked in the athletic facilities.
Ten of the 12 Pac-12 schools have reached a vaccination rate of 85% or higher.
As the Mountain West Conference prepares to open its season with three games on Saturday, eight of the 12 schools had by Monday mandated that all students are vaccinated.
The SEC is the only Power 5 conference that hasn’t announced its forfeiture policy, but that is expected soon. The Big Ten, ACC and Big 12 have declared that if one team can’t play a game because of COVID-19, they will forfeit the game and it won’t be rescheduled. It will be considered a win for the opponent in the conference standings. It’s a way to encourage vaccinations that the American Athletic Conference has also adopted.
The Pac-12 is similar, with a bit of nuance in its wording. Instead of directly referencing COVID-19 as the reason a team would be unable to play and forced to forfeit, the Pac-12 rule states: “If an institution is unable to play a contest through its own fault, it shall forfeit such contest to its opponent.”
The rule gives commissioner George Kliavkoff the 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.”
In the Big Ten and Big 12, if both teams can’t play because of COVID-19, it will be declared a no-contest. That’s different in the ACC, where both teams will have to forfeit and be credited with a loss in the conference standings if they can’t play because of COVID-19.
At Penn State, in order to help usher more than 100,000 fans into Beaver Stadium for the first time since 2019 — while continuing to account for the ongoing pandemic — athletic director Sandy Barbour has expanded some of the stadium’s entry gates and added magnetometers to shorten wait times in line and help avoid congestion. Barber said fans are encouraged to come early.
“My concerns are the same that we all have for our community, and that we be smart and we use good judgment as it relates to the science,” she said, “but we’re seeing literally all over the world, where fans are coming back together and we’re seeing very little COVID-related issues, so I am very hopeful and forward-thinking and forward-looking as it relates to us being back together with our fans that we’ve missed so desperately, and I know they’ve missed our student athletes.”
It’s all mostly a campus-wide decision, and those are based on state and local health guidelines. While the vast majority of Power 5 schools are planning on full capacity stadiums, Hawai’i last week announced it will not allow any fans at fall sports, at least for now.
“We have people traveling to and from games all over the West, just like all of our peers nationally,” Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said, “so we’re still monitoring and staying involved in, are we playing, are we not playing?”
Vaccinations can help answer that, Cardona said.
“As a country now we shouldn’t have to worry about whether or not we’re going to see that,” he said. “We need to do our part so that these athletes can do what they do best.”