AUBURN — There are so many things on everyone's minds right now, Auburn athletic director Allen Greene said, that it's difficult to focus on a topic that dominated the conversation just weeks ago — the return of sports.
Nationally, there is unrest caused by racial injustices, police brutality and the protesters who have had enough. In the Auburn community, there is mourning of the loss of legendary football coach Pat Dye, who died Monday.
"Our plates are only so big," Greene said. "The challenges we’re all facing as Americans and as global citizens are starting to mount."
But one of those challenges is how to safely bring back sports during a pandemic that has cause more than 100,000 U.S. deaths. It's beginning this week — the SEC announced on May 22 that its 14 schools could welcome student-athletes back to campus for voluntary workouts June 8.
On Tuesday, Greene and football coach Gus Malzahn revealed how Auburn University plans to proceed. Football players will return Thursday to a campus that has effectively been closed since March 12. Another phase of athletes, including men's basketball players, will join them later this month, with the third phase coming in July.
"It’s not foolproof. This virus, it’s different," Greene said. "But the plan that we have in place is one of the best plans I’ve seen.”
It includes testing for COVID-19, quarantines for those who test positive, contact tracing and a series of social-distancing guidelines.
"I’m very excited and I know our staff is excited to have our players back," Malzahn said. "This is really big. We’re ready to get things back going.”
What is Auburn's immediate testing plan?
All members of the football team, regardless of whether they have symptoms or not, will be tested first thing Friday. The results are expected back within 24 hours. Once those results are back, players who test negative for the virus will go through physicals and concussion tests over the weekend.
For the first seven days players are back on campus, Malzahn said Auburn is planning on keeping the entire team isolated and quarantined together, with players splitting time between only the dorm building everyone is staying in and the athletics complex. Players will have a roommate.
"I don't know what other teams are doing, but I'd bet very few are doing that," Malzahn said.
What happens if a player tests positive?
Team physician Dr. Michael Goodlett has a protocol in place, Malzahn said: If anyone tests positive, that person will be quarantined in a separate dorm.
The plan is to have players come in for testing in small groups, so Auburn will "know who was around who," Malzahn said.
How often will players be tested?
Malzahn said "that's still undecided at this point," though Auburn does have the ability to test at any time. The SEC recommends testing only "symptomatic team members (including all student-athletes, coaches, team support and other appropriate individuals)," despite the risk of asymptomatic spread.
There will be temperature gauges and checks for symptoms every day before players enter the football facility, and Malzahn said everyone will be given a mask to wear.
How will the workouts be run?
No university in the country will be allowed to conduct anything resembling a football practice. What the NCAA has permitted them to do is hold "voluntary" workouts overseen by the strength and conditioning staff, rather than the team's on-field coaches and assistants.
Malzahn said players will work with strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell in groups of eight, organized in part by experience — veteran players will start out with 30-minute windows, while younger players and incoming freshmen will start out a little slower.
"We haven’t seen our players in, what, 10 or 11 weeks?" Malzahn said. "Coach Russell is well-prepared to start building that foundation, not assuming anything. We’ve got extra ways to make sure our guys are hydrated more than they normally would. So we’re going to make sure we’ll gradually bring the whole team along."
Teams are still permitted to hold up to eight hours of meetings, film review and install with players each week, like they have been for the last few months. Those sessions will continue via Zoom.
What comes next?
That's unclear, at this point. The SEC has made no official plans beyond allowing voluntary workouts to begin. Malzahn said the league is kicking around ideas such as extending preseason camp or allowing teams to hold NFL-style organized team activities.
"I think the decision makers are still in the process of seeing how the first week or two goes," the head coach continued.
The same can be said for Auburn. The athletic department and its doctors, including Goodlett and university medical director Dr. Fred Kam, have discussed how to handle coronavirus safety protocols in the event that the football program is eventually allowed to begin doing more on the field in larger groups.
But for right now, everyone's focus is solely on the first week to two weeks.
"I think the big thing is just getting our guys to understand how we're going to operate as far as keeping ourselves safe," Malzahn said. "It's bigger than them. You've got to understand — I probably worry just as much about my coaches and older guys, support staff. We're just going to be responsible.
"I think the motivating factor is that we all want to play football. I promise you our players are probably at the forefront of that. So, with coming back, there's going to be a responsibility. And that responsibility is going to be making sure that you stay safe and you do the things you're supposed to do."