Every day is roughly the same for McKenzie Milton. The UCF quarterback drives from his off-campus apartment to the team’s football complex, where he has received permission to use the facility to continue his rehabilitation following a gruesome injury to his right leg nearly 18 months ago.

Before entering the building, he gets a forehead scan for a quick temperature check — part of new health and safety protocols implemented in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Then he washes his hands. Masks are required, and equipment must be wiped down after each use. He also must stay 6 feet apart from other players who are there. It’s a protocol many schools across the country have administered for athletes rehabbing long-term injuries.

But then, about a week ago, his throat started to hurt. He stayed home. When he developed a slight fever, he started to panic. Milton drove himself to a COVID-19 drive-through testing center located in a parking garage on the UCF campus, where medical personnel administered a diagnostic test by pushing a long swab up his nose.

His eyes watered. “It was terrible,” he says, “but better safe than sorry.”

He got the results the following day: He tested negative. Within a few days, the fever was gone and he felt like himself again. Milton missed two days of physical therapy, but while he awaited the test results, he could not help but think about all the people he had interacted with on a daily basis after he decided to stay in Orlando and continue with his daily rehab instead of returning home to Hawaii.

“I would have felt bad if I was around people and was sick and the possibility of our physical therapy having to get quarantined because of me,” Milton said.

What happened to Milton gets to the heart of the question of how and when to resume sports safely after the coronavirus pandemic forced the entire sports world to shut down in March. College athletic departments are grappling with the same dilemma as the rest of the country — desperate to reopen because of dire financial challenges while trying to prioritize the health of unpaid student-athletes. Collegiate leaders are acknowledging the realization that once workouts, practices and games resume, the spread of COVID-19 will be inevitable.

While searching for preventative measures, officials are struggling with if and how to incorporate testing, but one question seemingly always leads to more. There are simply no concrete answers or definitive, uniform plans right now. The logistics of implementing a testing regimen at one athletic department — let alone hundreds across the country — is an overwhelming concept, raising issues including cost, feasibility, and the ramifications of positive test results.

“I think it’s unrealistic to think that we won’t have positive tests on campus and positive tests in locker rooms,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told ESPN. “Somebody somewhere is going to have that occur, and they’ll have to deal with it.”

How schools across the country handle testing protocols, and what to do when someone tests positive, will help determine not only whether any sports can be played, but also whether they can be played for the entire length of their seasons. The 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick are in constant communication about best practices and plans with the hopes of making uniform decisions knowing that might not be possible.

“This is not simple,” American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said. “It’s easy to say we’re going to test everybody, but what does that mean and how is it going to be done? That’s going to be the key to everything we’re doing. We have to get it right.”

This week, the SEC is in the midst of meetings to determine what would be the first publicized considerations for allowing athletes to return voluntarily. SEC athletic directors are expected to meet with health experts on Thursday and then give a recommendation to university presidents and chancellors about whether they should extend the current May 31 lockdown deadline or determine a date to begin phased reopening. The presidents and chancellors are expected to make a decision when they meet Friday, multiple sources told ESPN.

While there is no formal timetable for college sports to resume, and NCAA president Mark Emmert has made it clear his office won’t mandate any uniform start date, there is a growing acceptance among college athletics leaders that in order for the student-athletes to return to a safe environment, some form of coronavirus testing will have to be part of the equation.

“What we do know is we have to work very hard with federal, state and local health officials to try and get in place testing at every level we can,” Emmert said. “As we heard from the federal guidelines and all of the public health officials, it’s a necessary step before you can move back toward anything like normalcy. In my opinion, it’s the critical linchpin to making this all work.”

What has changed since sports went on lockdown in mid-March?

About two months ago, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus, and the NBA suspended operations immediately. The next day, Syracuse was scheduled to play Louisville in the ACC men’s basketball tournament.

But just before tipoff, conference tournaments across the country were canceled, the first domino in what was to come for the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and spring sports over a wild 48 hours. Syracuse athletic director John Wildhack said at the time that the first positive test in the NBA “changed the entire dynamic for all of sports.”

A chain reaction of difficult decisions by the most powerful people in sports followed, but before canceling the basketball tournaments and spring championships, NCAA officials considered playing a shortened version of the Final Four — in one secluded place. Two members of the NCAA’s coronavirus advisory panel are based at Emory University, which is adjacent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.



Laura Rutledge discusses how college football’s decision-makers will handle players who test positive for the coronavirus.

“We were saying, ‘Hey, let’s do it in Atlanta, we have all of the geniuses in the world,'” said Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer.

The turnaround time for a diagnostic coronavirus test at the time was at least 72 hours — and that was with Emory’s on-site lab, which was highly prioritized for the critically ill. Based on that information and the advice of its medical experts, the NCAA saw no ethical justification for attempting to continue with the tournaments.

So, what exactly has changed since then to give anyone the confidence to believe that one positive test won’t again shut down sports?

“That’s a hypothetical, so I can’t predict in terms of the fall, but we know a lot more today than we did two months ago,” Wildhack said. “We’ll know a lot more two months from now than we know today. Anything that we do is going to be done in concert with the overall university, local, state, the CDC. I think everyone’s looking at some of the pro leagues and the models that they’re looking at to resume competition, most notably the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball. There will be some learning for everyone.”

Hainline points to better testing capabilities as one key difference; as they continue to advance, so does the hope for the eventual return of college sports. Not even the doctors, though, can predict how much the testing might advance between now and Aug. 29, when the college football season is tentatively scheduled to start.

“Now we’re at a point in time when the diagnostic tests are becoming much more widely available,” Hainline said. “We’re moving away from the prioritized schedule, and if we get to the point-of-care testing that we can get a result in 15 minutes, then you go to a completely different scenario and you create these bubbles. The inner bubble would be if you’re talking about a football team, that you have all of the players on the team and those that are going to be in close contact with the players and you can’t start a game until you’ve tested everyone that day.”

Testing everyone who will take part in any game is radically different than mid-March, when it was difficult to not only secure tests but exhibit severe enough symptoms to qualify for one. There is more knowledge about how the virus spreads, and contact tracing — which is a method of tracking every individual an infected person has come in contact with — is another practice every administrator is looking at as they develop testing guidelines.

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