The Medic: Major Cases in the NCAA: Should USC be worried for next week?

Columnist graphic for Pratik Thakur

The NCAA is seeing a massive influx of coronavirus cases recently. For instance, the Big Ten restarted its season only last week, but some players contracted the coronavirus already, causing the postponement and cancellation of some games. 

After my hometown Kansas native Graham Mertz put on a record-breaking performance for the No. 9 Wisconsin Badgers in Madison with five touchdowns and 248 yards against Illinois in a 45-7 win last week, Mertz became the first positive test on the team and is now out for at least 21 days. 

Unfortunately, the virus spread throughout the team, with the number of cases on the team currently up to 22, according to Bleacher Report. Now, the Badgers’ following game against Nebraska has been canceled, and there is a high probability that other matchups could get canceled or postponed as well. In addition, it has also been reported that their opponents, the Fighting Illini, now have logged two cases. 

Traveling down south to the SEC, No. 1 Clemson star (and future New York Jets quarterback) Trevor Lawrence has tested positive, missed Saturday’s game against Boston College, and will also not be available for Clemson’s game against our favorite rival, No. 4 Notre Dame this upcoming weekend.

These cases and outbreaks are not a good sign for the Pac-12 and USC, who are starting their season this weekend, as the No. 20 Trojans go up against Arizona State at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

Los Angeles has the second-largest metropolitan area by population in the United States at about 13,000,000. Even though currently the daily positivity rate in LA County is at 3.3% and has been gradually decreasing thanks to the local and state governments, increased travel by these teams because of these games can pose significant risks to the LA area. Consequently, the likelihood of transmission in the local community could increase after the Trojans and the Sun Devils play at the historic Coliseum. 

Additionally, even if USC takes all possible measures, it will be important for every other team to follow the same standards. For instance, our public counterparts in Westwood have a game two weeks from now against Utah at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. If they are not taking strict precautions, including rapid testing, proper isolation and sanitizing efforts, either team can easily get infected and transmit the virus across the conference in the following weeks. In my previous columns, I wrote that, compared to most other conferences, the Pac-12 has many schools located in major metropolitan areas such as Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles; therefore it is critical that schools take measures seriously, especially in light of the outbreaks at schools located in less populous areas. 

The main way to stay safe is by conducting daily, reliable testing of all players, staff, and other personnel, and the Pac-12 plans to do exactly that.

“It’s very aggressive,’’ Commissioner Larry Scott said of the Pac-12’s testing program. “But it gives us the best chance possible to get through the season with a minimum number of lost games.”

However, such reassurances are not the be-all, end-all. Let’s take a look at what Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said before his conference’s restart: 

“We needed the time. I am so pleased with where we are now compared to August. We’ve used the time wisely, and I feel prepared,” Warren said when asked by the Chicago Tribune about his confidence in the season restart. “I’m looking forward to the Big Ten dominating college football this weekend.”

Although the Big Ten certainly had exciting games in its first week, such as the Mertz showcase against Illinois and Indiana’s shocking upset against then-No. 8 Penn State, several coronavirus cases rained on the parade.

Still, at the moment, I have some level of trust in USC and other teams in the conference to learn from the mistakes of the others and try to take as many precautionary measures as possible. Still, don’t be surprised if cases start arising after this weekend — the rest of college football has shown us how volatile and unpredictable this virus can be.

Pratik Thakur is a sophomore writing about sports and its intersection with health policy during the coronavirus pandemic. His column, “The Medic,” runs every other Tuesday.