COLUMBUS — Ohio State football players who returned to voluntary workouts at the beginning of June did so with a variety of COVID-19 related guidelines.
Symptom checks upon entering the building. Adhering to distancing guidelines. Frequent hand washing. Protocols for laundry and dressing and undressing for workouts at home.
The Buckeyes also must follow guidelines for appropriate face coverings during these strength and conditioning sessions. They are now mandatory in public in Columbus. The Centers for Disease Control recommends masks because they reduce the release of respiratory droplets that could carry the virus.
Wearing masks during weight lifting and other exercises, however, is not the same as wearing them during the exertion necessary to practice and play college football — especially in early season heat. Back in May, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith offered a blunt assessment of the role face coverings would have in a 2020 football season.
“It’s unrealistic to think players can play with masks,” Smith said. “If someone says we’d have to do that … based on what I’ve learned, we won’t be playing.”
In late June, Dr. Chris Kratochvil of the University of Nebraska Medical Center remained skeptical of mask usage during competition. The chair of the Big Ten’s Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases said athletic trainers and football coaches from conference programs continue to say commonly available masks are too restrictive and would create other health concerns.
However, he did not dismiss the possibility of finding a solution prior to the scheduled start of the season — which for Ohio State is Sept. 5.
“The concerns they’re expressing is the limiting of the breathing and the perspiration,” Kratochvil said. “Is that going to further limit breathing as the mask gets saturated?
“One of those unanswered questions is, are there options out there that might help mitigate the risk? We’ll continue to reach out and ask those questions.”
Some sports equipment manufacturers are making progress.
Schutt, one of the leading manufacturers of football helmets, developed a visor called a “Splash Shield” that attaches to the inside of faceguards. The protection can be worn even in the helmets made by Schutt’s competitors.
Riddell, another helmet company, declined to make any representatives available for interviews. In a statement, the company said it will “continue to explore options to further these efforts with COVID-19 in mind and will share developments when appropriate.”
NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline recently told The Athletic that “every single person on that sideline should be wearing a mask or a face shield.”
Dr. Scott Frank, an associate professor in Case-Western Reserve University’s school of medicine, agrees. However, he does not share the concerns of the Big Ten coaches and athletic trainers referenced by Kratochvil. He instead cited long distance runner Galen Rupp, a two-time Olympic medalist who has worn a mask during races to help combat allergies.
Frank said it would be “tragic” if the NCAA does not universally require masks and face shields this fall.
“Anyone who believes you can’t compete while wearing a mask doesn’t want to wear a mask,” Frank said. “There is no question masks can be designed that would be protective to football players and not in the intrusive way surgical masks would be.”
Frank also offered as evidence countless videos from NFL Films and elsewhere of players’ ice breath cutting through face coverings pulled up over their noses during games.
Duane Carlisle says it’s not that easy. Currently the fitness coach for NFL officials, Carlisle previously served as head strength and conditioning coach with the San Francisco 49ers and Director of Sports Performance at Purdue.
He said players often do not keep those coverings over their nose and mouth while actually in games during cold weather. Those are also worn on a voluntary basis by players who have complete discretion as to their usage.
Carlisle is concerned about what wearing masks during a 90-yard drive means for the biggest players on both sides of the ball.
“It restricts your air flow,” Carlisle said of the currently available masks. “Any time your air flow is restricted, given the game’s intensity level, your body’s going to demand more oxygen. If you’ve got a mask on that restriction could be problematic, particularly when you have large bodies — offensive linemen and defensive linemen.”
Problem is, those linemen — the ones who engage in constant face-to-face battle throughout a game — need those face coverings most of all.
Kratochvil remains optimistic that solutions to this and other obstacles can be found.
“There’s a lot we’re learning each and every day,” Kratochvil said. “A month from now we’ll know a tremendous amount more than we know at this time.”