As many of us lounge around during this shelter-in-place, I can imagine that most of us have lost some degree of fitness caused by this pandemic. Gyms closed, workout equipment sold out, and a general air of stress and anxiety are not doing great things for our bodies at the moment. Imagine now that you’re a college athlete. You’re away from the campus, no team exercises, no strength and conditioning coaches, no state of the art gym access, and combine that with a huge swath of life experience and backgrounds in our student athletes, from residing in big houses to small apartments, there is going to be a huge disparity in the level of fitness that our players can maintain on their own.
Because of this, there is real reason to worry about what the next college football season will bring as far as injuries to student athletes. Football is already a high injury college sport and according to some frustratingly old data (2009) from the NCAA (but which I have little reason to believe has drastically changed) men’s football has the highest injury rate with 8.1 injuries per 1000 athletes across both games and practices. A majority of these injuries happen during games, by up to 7 times more. Ligament sprains are the most common injury reported, accounting for more than 30 percent of all injuries, namely knee and ankle ligaments. Much more disconcertingly, fatalities, heat illness and collapse are more likely to occur during transitions such as a return to practice after a break...
The rumors and what they mean
I don’t purport to be an inside expert, but I have it on fairly good authority past general speculation that some universities do not want students to return in the fall and have all but officially made the decision. One can assume this is an extension of no students on campus in the summer, as well. So what does this mean as far as college sports go? You can’t have an equitable season if one school has no students on campus, and another does. This suggests that sports will be pushed back to enable fairness (though honestly, there’s going to be a lot of unfairness when this is all said and done). This means there are unlikely to be team practices through the end of the year. Another strong rumor is that College Football itself will be pushed back to Spring 2021. This suggest that students will be experiencing a hands-off level of athletic maintenance or perhaps none at all (at least none that actually matters, as someone who recently did a “tele” physical therapy appointment). I’m interested to know, should these rumors hold true, when the conditioning and summer practice equivalent is occurring as far as timeframe goes. Coaches and the NCAA will certainly not get into the start of the college football season starting at zero. This would be reckless. But the issue isn’t so much the pre-season practice, whenever that occurs, it’s the potentially looming major lull in major athletic activity for these players between now and when it resumes. Right now, across the country, in any other better year, teams would be playing Spring Games around this time, having had about 2 months of spring practice. Then, they take their finals, have some time off, and then by the last week of May to early June players are in full on pre-season summer mode where they experience daily workouts while of course learning the plays, schemes, and strategies for the upcoming season.
This summer, however, it seems for many football programs, especially in hard hit and highly cautious states, there is no way this will be able to happen, as with many societal things reliant on large gatherings. Rutgers, which is in New Jersey, the second hardest hit by COVID-19 state in the nation, has already completely closed its campus until August, cancelling all camps and activities. So right there alone, with Rutgers as a Big Ten school, it seems there simply can’t be football starting on time (yeah yeah with your jokes). So with lack of spring practice and no summer practice, many of these players will be going through the longest workout lull of their careers, barring severe injury-related breaks that required surgery and recovery. It can be assumed that since these players started football in high school, there have likely been few breaks, and certainly not of the magnitude that this pandemic is causing. As I mentioned, not all players have the same degree of access to gyms and equipment at home, some of them states away from their universities. Maintaining themselves at the level of a college football athlete may simply be off the table for many players (for varying reasons).
All of this, different levels, different access, and different degrees of motivation even—it’s significantly easier to work out in a hyped up team environment than at home with your parents and other family members at your back—this creates a perfect storm of injury for student athletes when sports do inevitably return. Now, of course the coaches, the teams’ physical therapists, the NCAA, Athletic Directors, and of course the players all know this. They certainly don’t want to be in this situation, and avoidance of injury and mitigation of the negative effects of the fallout of this national and global situation are going to be of highest priority. However, when it comes to the physical aspects with the actual players... bodies are hard. This is a hard situation on all of our bodies, let alone a student athlete who’s expected to go out there playing a tough game and put on for their team, maybe even harder after the adversity their states and country have faced by the time the season does roll around. Players are already less likely to report injuries after multiple injury accumulation (Baugh et al. 2019).
What you can “do” as a fan
Now of course, there’s nothing you can actually control here, unless any of you reading this are strength and conditioning coaches, physical therapists, personal trainers, etc. but our mentalities and approaches as fans heading into the season can mean a lot. While everyone claims to want our players to “have fun out there,” this time we really have to mean it. It’s just a game and always has been, though the financial mega-money aspect of college football has certainly warped the sport to a near professional and, in my opinion, too serious levels in recent decades. We need to, at least just this season, have a good jolly ‘ol time. We want those kids to go out there and have fun, not destroy their bodies. And we always should because these players are sometimes really hurting themselves on behalf of our schools. Injuries aren’t the only negative effects of athletic activity, as these injuries can have permanent impacts on these players for the rest of their life. College athletes in general experience higher rates of chronic pain. 67% of a group of former Division I athletes who sustained a major injury and 50% reported chronic injuries, a finding that was 2.5 times higher than that seen in non-athletes. Most of these students surveyed were football players. Not to mention long term brain damage caused by football which is a whole other article.
I love college football, and I truly believe sports have a great many positives for the body and mind, and maybe I’m writing this from a sensitive place of empathetic anxiety as someone who has dealt with frustrating and limited injuries for the past 4 years, but I don’t want to see players clad in our schools’ colors go out there and get hurt after a hiatus caused by an unprecedented lifetime event. We know the coaches will (should) have these players’ backs and we have to support them in passive fan ways that we can. And maybe this inevitable separation between last season and the next will help fans calm down a bit over the on field results.
Also, update your data NCAA, don’t hide it.