Why is there concern about college football being a COVID-19 superspreader and not other sports or events?

In the weeks leading up to the start of the 2021 college football season, I read numerous warnings from members of the media warning of the risk of full stadiums with high numbers of unvaccinated fans contributing to the spread of COVID-19. And having attended a game with over 90,000 fans over the weekend, I understand the concerns from a health perspective. But I also haven’t seen data from the first two weeks of the season showing a large spike in cases. Maybe it’s out there and just hasn’t been collected or reported. But to me, there also seems to be a difference in how the media view college football compared to the NFL, other sports and leagues, and non-sporting events. I asked these questions in my latest newspaper column.

The Alabama-Florida college football game felt like a return to pre-pandemic life

I attended the Alabama-Florida game at The Swamp with my daughter over the weekend. While the battle on the field was great, what struck me was how amazing the environment was. The fifth-highest attendance in Gators’ football history. Huge tailgates everywhere. Thousands of Alabama fans who traveled to Gainesville. Packed bars and restaurants. Some of the loudest cheers you will ever hear.

And maybe 10 people in masks.

College football fans across the country are choosing to attend games despite COVID-19

To me, the game was a celebration of college football and freedom. Fans have decided the benefits of attending these games in person outweighs their personal risk from COVID-19. And it’s not just Florida, or the South. It’s happening across the country. Ohio State took on Oregon in Columbus with 100,482 fans in attendance. The “white out” game at Penn State against Auburn? 109,958 fans were there. Even in Los Angeles, over 68,000 fans attended the LSU-UCLA contest.

Experts will say that it could take weeks or months before we know if these packed college football stadiums led to a surge in COVID-19 cases. I agree – somewhat. I’d argue we will never really know because there are too many variables.

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College football COVID-19 policies for the upcoming season raise questions and concerns

The difficulty of proving full stadiums cause a surge in COVID-19 cases

Several studies have tried to show the risk – or lack thereof – to fans in NCAA and NFL stadiums last season, with differing results. At least with college football, the data on COVID-19 cases after a game in front of 90,000+ fans are tricky for several reasons.

One, a huge percentage of fans, both for the home and visiting teams, travel from quite a distance. We drove over 300 miles from Charleston to Gainesville. A huge number of my friends traveled from here to Clemson for the Georgia Tech game. If these fans caught the virus at the game, they wouldn’t know it until days later, once they’re home. The case would be reported in their home city and likely be missed by people studying cases in the city or county where the game was.

Second, how can officials know someone in Ann Arbor, Columbus, or Baton Rouge developed COVID-19 from attending a football game and not from bars or restaurants that weekend? Sure, patients can tell contact tracers that they went to the game. But the large epidemiology studies that look at these cases and population data for those counties and states can’t tell what percentage of the cases came from the games instead of bars, tailgates or even normal daily activities.

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The media warned of the risk of COVID-19 and college football

Before the season, numerous media pundits warned us about stadiums packed with unvaccinated, unmasked fans. Just a quick Google search this morning of “college football attendance COVID-19” turned up these headlines in the first few pages of results: Will College Football Games Become Covid-19 Coronavirus Superspreader Events? (Forbes) Is College Football Making the Pandemic Worse? (The New Yorker) Ohio State fans: Doctors urge caution as football returns (The Columbus Dispatch).

Interestingly, I also did a Google search for “NFL attendance COVID-19.” 10 pages of results has not turned up a single article predicting NFL games would be superspreader events or contribute to the pandemic.

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The opinions of college football players should factor into the decision about playing during the COVID-19 pandemic

Why is there little media concern about the NFL and COVID-19?

What’s different about the NFL versus college football in the media’s eyes? Is it that many NFL stadiums are smaller than The Big House, The Swamp or Death Valley? Maybe. Is it that many of the cities where the NFL games are being played require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to attend? It’s possible. Is it that fans who go to NFL games mostly live in those cities and don’t have to travel? Could be. Is it because the NFL appeals to left-leaning columnists due to its social and political views? I don’t know.

And why college football and not the Emmy Awards, which were held Sunday in an enclosed tent with no masks? The Los Angeles County Health Department, which requires masks for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, appears to have made an exception for the event because the event was a “TV production” and celebrities present were considered “performers.”

Is it a political attack on the sport?

I’m not arguing any of this is right or wrong as much as I wonder why college football is criticized more than other sports or events. Maybe it’s all political, as some people close to me believe. All you Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Notre Dame supporters can yell at me that this opinion is unfair, but college football has largely become a regional sport, dominated by teams in the South. The last 17 college football national champions reside in states won by Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election. NFL teams are generally in larger urban cities with mostly liberal elected officials.

It seems clear that college football fans have decided that they want to return to normal life after 18 months of coronavirus restrictions. They want to travel to games, tailgate, and scream for their teams with tens of thousands of other fans. As a physician, I recognize the concerns. As a lifelong sports fan though, I love it.

Note: A modified version of this article appears as my September 22, 2021 sports medicine column in The Post and Courier.

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