Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly Will Lean On ‘Peer Accountability’ To Avoid In-Season COVID-19 Disruptions And Absences
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Brian Kelly Will Lean On ‘Peer Accountability’ To Avoid In-Season Spikes

The encouraging COVID-19 testing trends for Notre Dame football only bring head coach Brian Kelly so much relief and confidence.

Since June 15, the Irish have tested 356 players and had only two positive cases. One of them has recovered. They have avoided the alarmingly high numbers that have caused other programs to pause summer workouts.

It’s all good, until school starts and the degree of control loosens. Players will move out of their summer home, the on-campus Morris Inn hotel, and into dorms or off-campus apartments when the semester starts Aug. 10. The general student body returns, bringing people from all over the country and the world to campus. No one can control their every move. A full campus is not naturally a bubble.

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Notre Dame football head coach Brian Kelly
Kelly knows the ability to avoid outbreaks and absences lies in the players’ hands. (Bill Panzica)

“Essentially, we leave the bubble and start the season, unlike some of the professional teams like the NHL or NBA, they move into a bubble and start their season,” Kelly said Tuesday on The Dan Patrick Show. “We’ll get to the starting line. We’ll see what happens after that.”

The low number of positives on the team this summer is a good sign for Notre Dame’s hopes of playing its Sept. 5 or 6 opener at Navy (Kelly said the date is still not set). Additionally, every student has to test negative before coming on campus.

Those extensive protocols make bringing the virus to campus difficult. The problem that could threaten a football season and a semester overall is the virus coming to campus during the school year if and when students go into the community. It could spread on campus from there. No university administrator or coach can make a rule prohibiting students from going to off-campus restaurants, bars or parties.

That lack of control doesn’t naturally mesh with coaches who oversee endless aspects of their programs. All they can do here is urge players to use discretion and try and light a fire in them. Anyone who goes to a house party or bar knows it’s not just the coaches’ scorn they’ll feel if they get the virus and spread it among teammates.

“What’s your priority?” Kelly said. “If you want to play college football this fall, you’ll have to do the things you’ve done over the last four weeks. The numbers speak for themselves. We’ve already said you can do this. But you’ve done it in a confined environment. They have had to do the things necessary. They’ve stayed out of the bars, away from parties, social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, all the things we already know.

“They’re going to have to continue that discipline, and there’s going to have to be peer accountability. Guys are going to have to say to other guys, ‘You can’t do that because I want to play this fall. If you do that and you get me sick, I’m not going to be happy.’ A big dose in peer accountability and good dose of guys wanting to play this season is going to be about what happens when the season starts.”

The cost of positive tests is steep, and not just in the sense of getting sick and the risks that brings to teammates, coaches and others. Any player who tests positive has to miss at least 10 days of competition, according to the NCAA and Power Five testing and safety guidelines released last week. That's at least one game.

Those found to be in “high risk” contact of a player who tested positive have to quarantine for 14 days. High-risk is defined as being within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes when at least one person is not wearing a mask. In that case, even a couple of positive tests a week can make the absences for that week’s game add up.

Avoiding the self-inflicted wounds is the best way to lower the chances of suspended games or a season that has to stop before it’s over. The Power Five requirements should help mitigate the risk of a team spreading a virus to its opponent during a game. All players must be tested within 72 hours of a game. Coaches who are not tested in the same time frame must wear a mask on the sideline. Referees will be tested once per week as well.

Part of the decision to go to conference-only games is to assure everyone is operating under the same protocols. Schedules are also easier to flex and move around in case an outbreak makes playing a game untenable. Only the Big Ten and Pac-12 have gone that way so far. The other three Power Five leagues and the American Athletic Conference have not made final decisions.

One option is a shortened schedule that preserves marquee non-conference games. Power Five versus Power Five non-league games mean both teams are using the same testing protocols. Theoretically, that lowers the risk of infected players taking the field when compared to a game against a smaller school that may not have the resources to test as frequently.

“There are some natural rivalries the ACC and SEC have,” Kelly said. “The South Carolina-Clemson game. Kentucky-Louisville. Florida-Florida State. We have Arkansas on our schedule. It’s conceivable those games want to stay on the schedule.”

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