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College football’s next steps after Nick Saban coronavirus diagnosis and high-profile postponements

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After three relatively smooth weeks of SEC competition, COVID-19 caught up with the nation’s highest-profile conference within a span of three days.

The SEC postponed its first game Monday, as Vanderbilt, which had only 56 scholarship players available in last week’s 41-7 loss to South Carolina, could not safely play its next contest at Missouri. Tuesday brought reports of a significant COVID-19 outbreak at Florida, just days after coach Dan Mullen had implored university administrators to “Pack the Swamp” this week against LSU.

The Swamp will be empty after the SEC on Wednesday postponed the LSU-Florida game. Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin soon revealed 21 positive tests among players. Then, hours later, Alabama announced that coach Nick Saban and athletic director Greg Byrne both had tested positive for the virus. Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin, whose team hosted Alabama last week, also hinted Wednesday about a spike in cases with his team, although Saturday’s game against Arkansas remains on track.

“Obviously,” Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt told reporters, “it has been a tough day.”

A tough 72 hours for the SEC, including college football’s premier coach contracting COVID, once again raises questions about the season’s viability in the midst of a pandemic. Will college football get to the finish line? How many outbreaks and postponements are tolerable? What do the SEC’s repeated COVID hits indicate about game travel, testing, and the role of coaches, who are starting to contract the virus at a higher frequency?

Athletic administrators across the country who spoke to ESPN on Wednesday and Thursday aren’t panicking. While not dismissing the SEC’s problems, they say they expected game postponements and positive tests for notable coaches and players, and pointed to an entire offseason spent planning for it and revamping schedules to add flexibility for when disruptions occur. They continue to monitor virus data and trends, but have had no conversations about stopping the season.

“We all have invested a great deal of time and energy, the student-athletes have invested a great deal,” Arkansas AD Hunter Yurachek said. “I think this was expected. Our SEC medical task force told us there was going to be another spike in mid-to-late October, and I think that’s what we’re all seeing right now. That’s why we built in the make-up dates at the end of the season, because we thought something like this may occur, where we were going to lose some games during the season.”

Clemson athletic director Dan Radakovich said circumstances now are far different than they were in the spring, when college athletics essentially came to a screeching halt with one positive test from the NBA’s Rudy Gobert.

“Part of the reason things shut down in the spring was because universities shut down,” Radakovich said. “The fear of the unknown back in the spring was very much in the forefront. Now, we have universities that continue to teach, whether it’s online, hybrid or in-person. There’s surveillance testing on many college campuses. It’s a very different world than it was in the spring. Athletic departments continue to have their protocols, stop when they need to stop, play when they need to play.

“We can have an outbreak tomorrow — knock on wood we don’t — but I’m sure that Florida and Vanderbilt and other schools that have had to pause have done everything correctly. It’s the mystery of this virus, as to how it moves along. You have to be ready.”

The chance to compete in what AAC commissioner Mike Aresco calls “a representative season,” plus the financial implications of not playing, continue to drive college football forward despite the constant challenges of the pandemic. Administrators cite multiple bye weeks built into schedules, flexibility with conference championship game dates, and more knowledge about the virus as tools to navigate trouble spots.

While the SEC hadn’t had any game postponements or head coaches reporting positive tests until this week, other leagues have already faced those obstacles.

“If there becomes a situation where the path forward is not safe, then we’ll absolutely adjust, but we have been preparing for head coaches being sick in this game since May,” TCU athletic director Jeremiah Donati said. “No one is surprised. To the common fan, you see the sticker shock of a Nick Saban or a Greg Byrne, or an Alabama or Florida, but I don’t think anyone who’s been in those meetings is at all surprised.”

TCU had to postpone its opener against rival SMU because of COVID-19 issues on its roster. Fellow Big 12 member Baylor twice has announced postponements, including this week’s game against Oklahoma State, as athletic director Mack Rhoades cited 28 active COVID cases among players and 14 among the football staff.

Last Saturday, Notre Dame resumed play for the first time since Sept. 19 after going through its own COVID-19 outbreak..

“We had our spike and came out the other side and no one is unavailable related to the virus,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “So that’s a good place to be. We feel good about protocols and procedures. Speaking only for our program, we’re very optimistic.”

Though programs and coaches have dealt with positive tests since their return to campus over the summer, Saban is the most high-profile person in the sport to test positive, putting yet another spotlight on protocols and the viability of playing an entire season.

Saban became the sixth known FBS head coach to test positive for COVID-19. The Alabama coach, who turns 69 on Halloween, is also the oldest (Kansas coach Les Miles, 66, tested positive last week). A number of assistant coaches, including some at Alabama, already have missed games because of positive tests.

“When you have some coaches of the notoriety of Nick Saban pop up, people take note of that,” Louisville athletics director Vince Tyra said. “It begs the conversation from a lot of folks to say, ‘Gee, Nick’s got it, are we doing the right thing?’ We certainly weren’t naive as college athletics going into it that we were going to have to work through cases as they arise. I still like having our players in a controlled environment versus just out around in the public, where the incident rate is much higher.”

No coaches are known to have been hospitalized, and both Norvell and Arkansas State’s Blake Anderson returned to the sideline after contracting the virus during the season. Miles is on track to travel with Kansas for this week’s game at West Virginia, athletic director Jeff Long said Wednesday.

“It’s only a concern if the head coach has been in a position to infect more people,” Swarbrick said. “We never talk about competitive consequences. It’s just health and safety, what we have to do. I don’t know that the head coach necessarily presents more of a risk than the special teams coach, who frankly is in the room with more players than the head coach is.”

If there is one situation that is similar to what Saban and Alabama are experiencing, it is what happened with Mike Norvell at FSU. The week before the biggest game on the schedule, a Sept. 26 matchup against rival Miami, Norvell announced he had tested positive and would not travel with the team for the game. Florida State had protocols in place that they hoped would minimize spread should one of its coaches get infected, including meetings held via Zoom.

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David Pollack says it will be an enormous deal for Alabama not to have Nick Saban coaching against Georgia, and Heather Dinich details how Saban’s absence would be considered by the CFP committee.

University contact tracers got to work after Norvell tested positive, and determined there was no spread to players or the team. Florida State never asked to move the game, it would go on as scheduled, though Norvell would not be there. Norvell stayed as connected as possible, conducting all team and staff meetings over zoom. At practice, Florida State had cameras and speakers set up at various points on the field. Norvell had a live video feed at home, and was able to communicate with both coaches and players through the speakers.

Even once the team arrived in South Florida, Norvell stayed involved with the team through zoom all the way up until the moment the team boarded buses to head to the stadium. From there, Norvell had no communication with coaches or players and had to sit and watch helplessly from home as his team lost 52-10. Norvell said he sent a video message to the team that was played in the locker room after the game.

“I hated that I wasn’t there for it,” Norvell said. “This is my team, my players, guys I absolutely care about and believe in, and it hurts when you don’t play to your capabilities and get beat in a big game.”

Aresco said there were concerns this summer about whether “too much disruption,” along with general safety concerns, made the season worthwhile. But like many around the sport, he thinks athletes are safer because of regular testing and other COVID-19 protocols within their programs.

The AAC has had 11 games involving its teams postponed so far, as Saturday’s Cincinnati-Tulsa game became the third conference contest impacted. But Aresco said those decisions, along with constant monitoring, likely can limit outbreaks.

“We’re looking at community spread, we’re looking at the cases on campus, and if anything reached a tipping point, we would absolutely sit down and consider whether we want it to go forward,” Aresco said. “But we don’t think we’re anywhere close to that now. We’ve been generally pleased with being able to play most of our games and having very low rates. Will that continue? Who knows? Knock on wood. You just don’t know. It’s a contagious disease and we’ve found that just doing the normal things, you can get it. That’s unfortunate. We’re monitoring everything closely, not only in our conference but outside.”

Alabama is working to identify the source of Saban and Byrne’s positive tests, but Saban on Wednesday said any travel increases the risk of exposure (the Crimson Tide visited Ole Miss last week). Florida’s outbreak also might have been linked to travel, as Stricklin said several players experienced allergy-like symptoms that they didn’t report — not thinking they were COVID-related — before last week’s trip to Texas A&M.

Swarbrick isn’t overly concerned about football travel, noting “an infrequent number” of trips, especially compared to basketball or other sports. Notre Dame linked its outbreak to a team meal before a Sept. 19 home game against South Florida. Although there is little evidence that actual competition spreads the virus, players and coaches must always monitor their behavior.

“So far we’re not at a critical juncture, but it’s not getting any easier,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “It’s a constant circumstance, and if you’re not paying attention, you can get into a bad spot in a hurry. … There have been a number of examples where you’re bouncing along just fine and all of a sudden ended up with a false negative or an exposure from an off-campus or nonathletic environment, and all of a sudden you’ve got a big outbreak.”

Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Justin Hamilton was unavailable in-person for two weeks, as the Hokies dealt with an outbreak that sidelined more than 20 players and a handful of coaches for two Saturdays. ACC commissioner John Swofford said his first reaction upon hearing positive test results in the league is concern for anyone infected.

“You feel for coaches and players who can’t take part on game day, but it’s one of those situations where you plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Swofford said. “Those occurrences were expected to some degree, and we’re always working through our medical group in terms of our protocols, but we haven’t really looked at that as a failure of protocols at all. We look at it as, ‘This is part of the world we’re in right now, how do we deal with it and move forward in the safest possible way?'”

The need for COVID-19 vigilance is especially pronounced for teams in leagues that haven’t kicked off their fall seasons. The Big Ten and Mountain West begin play next week, followed by the MAC and Pac-12 in early November. Unlike the six FBS leagues that are already playing, those conferences lack makeup dates to reschedule games.

“I drive everybody crazy,” Penn State coach James Franklin told reporters Wednesday night. “I’m the nag all day long at the office, I’m the nag all day long at practice, and then I get mad at the other personnel on the field that I need some help, making sure that we’re all doing it. Obviously, as soon as we made this decision to play college football, we knew there was going to be definite challenges that came with it, and just as much challenges, there was going to have to be significant sacrifices made and there was going to have to be significant discipline shown by everybody.

“We’re just trying to do as best as we possibly can to make this thing work.”

For now, it’s working at Oklahoma, where the Sooners’ student-athlete positivity rate has shrunk from 9% to 1% over the past six weeks. OU athletic director Joe Castiglione said there has been “no deviation” from relying on medical advice when making any and all decisions around practice and playing.

“We are not guessing our way through any of this,” Castiglione said. “We all know we are only as good as the results of our next test.”

Andrea Adelson contributed to this story.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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