With testing and other mitigation measures in place, playing college football games did not contribute to coronavirus spread among players in the NCAA’s Southeastern Conference last year, according to a study published Friday in JAMA Network Open.
At some points in the pandemic, it wasn’t clear that there would even be a college football season. It seemed football players would have to break all the pandemic safety rules about keeping their distance from each other. Players don’t wear face coverings when they play, they don’t wash their hands before fiddling with their mouthguards or touching a shared object like the football, they shout when they are in close proximity to each other and they pile on each other when tackling.
Yet with mitigation measures, the organizations that run college football thought they could play safely, even in parts of the country with high transmission rates, and before vaccines were available. And this latest study suggests they were right.
For the study, researchers from Texas A&M University tracked nearly 1,200 SEC football players between September 26 and December 19, 2020. The players had wearable sensors that could determine what kind of close contact they had during the game, and they had PCR Covid-19 tests three times a week during the season. If any players or coaches tested positive, there were strict isolation and quarantine rules.
In total, the players had 109,762 opposing-player interactions over 64 regular season games, the study found. Out of all the players the study followed, 138 tested positive during the season; only 18 tested positive for Covid-19 within 48 hours of playing a game. That suggests regular testing and the strict isolation and quarantine rules kept the majority of players who got sick off the field.
Among the players who came into contact with the 18 who had Covid-19 within the 48 hours of the game, none got sick with Covid-19 from that game contact. One of the authors of the study, Benika Dixon, said she was not surprised by the study results.
“We thought that play was relatively safe because we knew that the SEC was implementing several different strategies to mitigate the spread of Covid-19,” Dixon, a visiting assistant professor at Texas A&M School of Public Health, said.
In addition to regular testing and quarantine and isolation protocols, there were a few other factors that may have kept the players safe.
While football is an intense contact sport, the interactions among athletes were quick. Most contact lasted less than 26 seconds, according to the sensor data. Only 13 player-to-player interactions met the definition of what the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defined as a “close contact exposure,” meaning the player was within 6 feet of another for more than 15 minutes. Of those 13, none of those interactions resulted in anyone getting sick.
It also mattered that the sport was played outside. Covid-19 spreads much more easily indoors, according to the CDC, particularly in crowded and poorly ventilated spaces. Previous studies showed the risk of Covid-19 transmission outside may be 18 times lower than activities inside. Studies of other sports played outside, like rugby, also showed that there was no transmission during a match.
“Studies like this show we should be putting people outside for activities during a pandemic, full stop,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Gandhi was not involved with the study, but said it has implications beyond football, showing short exposures between people outside do not transmit the virus.
“Remember the time in this pandemic when people would walk past each other even with masks on outside and tense up because there was this idea that they’d transmit the virus, look at a study like this and you see why this doesn’t happen,” she said.
Gandhi said a study like this could have implications for states like California that still require children to wear masks when they are outside during recess. She said the study shows this may not be necessary. “These are short bursts of exposure like what these football players had outside,” Gandhi said.
The study does have a few limitations. It was performed before the more contagious Delta variant was in wide circulation. It was also done before vaccinations were widely available. Both factors may have impacted the number of people who caught Covid-19.
“Studies like this show that many activities that appear risky actually are on a continuum between safe and not safe,” wrote Dr. Daniel Morgan with the VA Maryland Health Care System in the commentary that accompanied the study.
Get CNN Health's weekly newsletter
Sign up here to get The Results Are In with Dr. Sanjay Gupta every Tuesday from the CNN Health team.
Dixon added that the study also shows that activities can continue in a pandemic if managed the right way.
“The results of this study show that following protective and mitigative strategies is very important,” Dixon said. “It also shows that we can safely play sports when we’re following such protocol.”