‘Voluntary’ workouts are normal for college athletes

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Last week, the NCAA announced that basketball and football players would be able to return to campus on June 1st, pending conference and state approval, to participate in voluntary offseason workouts with teammates.

It’s spawned a conversation about the return to normalcy and how college sports can make their COVID comeback. Our Corey Robinson made the point on All Things on Friday that the voluntary workouts that he participated in while a member of the Notre Dame football team were “mandatory optional,” meaning that they were voluntary in name only. The players were expected to be there and participate, even if it cut into their summer vacation.

How this plays out in the coronavirus era is an entirely different conversation, one with too many caveats to for people that are suffering from quarantine brain. For example, while the NCAA is pulling back on their restrictions, the schools and their athletes are still subject to conference rules — the SEC will be opening things up on June 1st, while the Pac-12 is waiting until June 15th — and state laws. Ohio has re-opened, while New Jersey is still very much limiting what can and cannot open. A return will be different for Ohio State and Rutgers, who are both part of the Big Ten.

And that’s only part of the complications involved.

New York City is the epicenter of the outbreak in a country that has been hit the hardest by this virus. Will coaches want to bring players that live in the city during the offseason back onto campus and risk infection? Will players that live with at-risk relatives be forced to return home?

The other side of it, however, is that as states open up, as local gyms open up, these athletes are going to want to get back to their routine. They are going to want to get back into shape. If you think that you have taken lockdown hard, imagine being a finely-tuned athlete that is told to stay out of the gym and off the basketball courts for two months. Those guys are going to jump at the chance to start playing again, and if the option is to workout at the local Lifetime Fitness or have them back onto campus, where access to weight rooms is monitored and sanitizing can be done more often, the answer is clear.

Allowing athletes to workout on campus during the summer may actually be the safer option.

Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: Moving towards a return to sports is a good thing for our country. We need signs that we can get back to a regular life at some point. We need hope. We need something to look forward to, and for many, that is watching — or playing — college athletics. There are so many unknowns that a slow, cautious return might be what works.

That said, the number of questions that are still left unanswered is mystifying.

For starters, who is going to play to test all of these college football and college basketball players? Who is going to pay to test all the people they come into contact with on a daily basis? All the professional sports teams that have returned or are preparing to return have rigorous testing procedures in place. College sports doesn’t. Those pro athletes will be kept in a bubble. They are going to be quarantined. College athletes will be on campus. All it takes is for one member of a football or basketball team to decide that it’s OK to hit a party where someone is asymptomatic to mess everything up.

And what happens when they do? Will that player go into quarantine? Will everyone that he or she has been practicing against go into quarantine? Will the teams they played in recent days go into quarantine? Will they be allowed to play road games if someone in the program tests positive? Will other campuses want to risk an outbreak just so they can get the ticket revenue from a 1/3-full stadium?

What about the coaches that are 70-plus years old?

Hell, what about all of the college basketball players from overseas? Are we ever going to see them in a college hoops uniform again?

Here’s the biggest question, however: College campuses have started to announce their new schedules for classes, and many of them are starting early and ending early, right around Thanksgiving, due to concerns about a second wave coming this winter. November is when college basketball season is supposed to start. Are we going to play a full season in the throes of a second wave?

The question of whether or not these workouts are actually voluntary is hardly the question I would be asking if I’m a college sports fan right now.