By Kyle Conkle
Colleges and universities are in a unique position this year as they attempt to effectively approach how to implement policies and procedures that allow for fans to safely attend games in the midst of an on-going global pandemic. With the arrival of multiple COVID-19 vaccines and numbers decreasing collectively at times across the U.S. following distribution, colleges and universities have been hopeful that much of the “how to handle” issues related to the virus are behind them.
Unfortunately, that is not the case, and considering the consequences of potentially another year without attendance, figuring out an alternative has been the priority. Protecting the health and safety of players, coaches, spectators, and other personnel connected to college football is vitally important, but many colleges and universities can ill afford another year without the revenue that college football brings, especially for smaller schools reliant on such funds.
Certain states appear to be less concerned about implementing COVID-19 protocol, which in some cases has made the process simpler for universities operating underneath said umbrella, while others have been proactive in incorporating restrictions which may make the undertaking quite demanding. The varying rules and expectations across the country certainly have an impact on players, coaches, athletic administration, and fans. But what is the nature of enforcement and could it potentially violate any rights?
It could be argued that the inception of such ideas began through observation of what most locations necessitated for travel, and given the transfer conceptually, colleges and universities saw the writing on the wall with what could be absorbed to standardize within their domain in hopes of mitigating the risk of the rising Delta variant while protecting permissible admittance. With Tulane University being on the forefront of the movement, the confining verbiage requires proof of a COVID-19 vaccination or a negative COVID-19 PCR test result within 72 hours of entering the stadium. The University of Oregon and Oregon State University quickly followed suit, but the school that perhaps made the most waves once they decided to go that route was Louisiana State University. Currently, it is on the respective schools to make the decision regarding capacities and protocol per local and state guidelines. Attempting to balance health and safety with personal choices and individual liberties has proven to be a challenging endeavor to say the least.
While many individuals are calling for a consistent set of guidelines instituted by the NCAA, they have only provided recommendations for vaccinated and unvaccinated people at this time. With politics playing a major role in how standards are received, the NCAA likely removed the target from their back by eliminating themselves from the equation. Although it may seem clear on the surface what to do, actually carrying it out may prove much more difficult.
For instance, many colleges and universities utilize volunteers or outside companies to handle ticket taking or access control. Most often, this only includes a simple ticket, but now these individuals may be tasked with checking a vaccination card or negative COVID-19 PCR test. Have these individuals had the time to be properly trained on recognizing official/falsified documents? Does a proper training for checking the aforementioned documents exist at this level yet? Are they prepared to handle the unruly fan looking for a case? Or is the requirement really just a way to cover the colleges and universities from liability without the actual intent to truly enforce?
The confusion is evident, but the latter option of a negative COVID-19 PCR test seems to be the scapegoat from legal ramifications. It is apparent that the vaccination is encouraged on many fronts within colleges and universities. However, no college or university has implemented only a vaccine mandate to enter a stadium, nor should anyone expect that to happen because of what could follow. For instance, if a fan attempts to enter the game, in this scenario, without a vaccination card and is denied entry after voicing religious objection, he or she may seek litigation, depending on jurisdiction. On the flip side, some will simply defer to the ideology behind if you do not want to go to the game, then do not go. Or, if you want to go to the game, either get a vaccination card or a negative COVID-19 PCR test, or go to a state that does not require it.
Governors play a larger role in this framework than many realize. For example, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis views a vaccine mandate as reducing individual freedom and violating patient privacy. On a similar note, Texas’s Greg Abbott is not allowing schools that receive state funds to have a mandate. Consequently, should schools violate such executive orders, they risk losing funding integral to their overall operation.
As one can see, the issue is very complex and probably the most frustrating aspect is the lack of consistency so that individuals know what to expect. What should be expected is the rise of litigation pertaining to COVID-19 related issues, like mandates, emerge over the course of the football season. While enforcement may be the preeminent issue to operations personnel, one of the highest concerns on behalf of the teams will be the issue of forfeiture. Consequently, practitioners should remain aware of developments regarding rules, regulations, and legal issues for preparation purposes that diminishes the imminent risk; regardless of the manner it decides to surface through.
Brandeis, L. D. & Supreme Court Of The United States. (1922) U.S. Reports: Zucht v. King, 260 U.S. 174. [Periodical] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/usrep260174/
Dinich, H. (2021, August 26). The 2021 college football COVID protocols – – Requirements, attendance, forfeits and more. ESPN. https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/32084177/the-2021-college-football-covid-protocols-requirements-attendance-forfeits-more
Kesslen, B., Watkins, M., & Syed, K. (2021, August 25). Confusing rules, loopholes and legal issues: College vaccination plans are a mess. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/confusing-rules-loopholes-legal-issues-college-vaccination-plans-are-mess-n1267981
Kyle Conkle is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Shorter University and current PhD Student at Troy University with past practitioner experience as a Division I Manager for Athletic Operations and Facilities. His areas of specialization in research include organizational behavior and leadership with an emphasis on intercollegiate athletics. He lives in Rome, GA.