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What Arizona, college sports can learn from MLB’s first coronavirus outbreak

Detroit Tigers Summer Workouts Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Arizona Wildcats athletic director Dave Heeke said the 2020 Major League Baseball season will be an apt model for college sports to follow when they begin, whether that be in the fall or sometime in 2021.

Because unlike the NBA and NHL, which are resuming their seasons in this pandemic in a bubble sealed off from the outside world, MLB teams are traveling from city to city as usual, just like college athletics will.

So you can bet the way the coronavirus swept through the Miami Marlins’ clubhouse—and the way the outbreak was mismanaged—caught the attention of Heeke and other athletic directors around the country who hope to have sports anytime soon.

On Monday, it was reported that 14 Marlins—nine players and five coaches—tested positive for COVID-19. Four of those cases were identified during their series with the Philadelphia Phillies and those players were immediately scratched from the lineup and quarantined at the team hotel. Good job.

But the others went undetected, likely because they were asymptomatic. And because the Marlins went ahead and finished the series anyway, it’s possible that the Phillies were exposed to the virus.

Knowing how contagious it is, some folks are already calling for the MLB season to be canceled or at least put on hold to avoid a league-wide outbreak. One Colorado Rockies player opted out of the season Monday to prioritize his health. We’re only three games in.

Some of this could have been avoided if the Marlins were prevented from playing, but they never considered sitting out Sunday even though their starting pitcher, third baseman and left fielder had to be scratched from the lineup.

That should come as no surprise because the decision was left to the players and, naturally, they want to play.

“We knew this could happen at some point,” Marlins shortstop Miguel Rojas told reporters after Sunday’s series finale. “We came to the ballpark ready to play.”

But the decision should not be theirs to make. The MLB now knows it needs an objective protocol to determine what should force a cancelation. League owners called an emergency meeting on Monday, likely to discuss exactly that.

Fortunately, MLB moved quickly to postpone the Marlins and Phillies’ Monday tilts against the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees, respectively, before things could get even worse.

This all highlights the importance of comprehensive testing so that players who are infected do not enter the ballpark. MLB teams have a 60-man roster pool this season solely for this reason. So that even if 20 players contract the virus and have to stay home, a team can still field enough healthy bodies to play.

NBA players are tested every day in the bubble whereas MLB players are tested every other day. Cases will fall through the cracks. It explains how someone like Matt Davidson can be in the Cincinnati Reds’ Opening Day lineup, then get placed on the Injured List the very next morning after testing positive for the virus.

Lesson be learned: if there is a college sports season this fall, players and coaches will need to be tested as often as possible, and as close to game time as possible.

The NCAA has recommended that teams be tested no less than 72 hours before a competition, but that still allows for too much time to contract the virus. Ideally, testing should occur no less than 24 hours before a game, assuming the results can be turned around that quickly.

That means college programs will need to have comprehensive contingency plans in case their head coach, players and other staffers have to be scratched at the last moment.

As we saw with the Marlins, there will be situations where a player or coach, maybe several, are cleared to travel with the team, only to test positive closer to game time and have to be quarantined at the team hotel.

There also needs to be some sort of universal agreement that outlines what forces a cancellation, a big reason the Pac-12 moved to a conference-only schedule for 2020. It’s easier to regulate that within the league.

Another benefit of such a schedule: it’s easier to reschedule games, and the Pac-12 is reportedly designing a slate that will allow for some flex weeks in case of postponements. This is why some argue extending the season (in terms of weeks, not games) makes more sense than contracting it. Time is more valuable than ever.

But the bottom line is that the MLB season has already taught us that things will go wrong in 2020, and you better have all your bases covered.

Otherwise, all the gymnastics school officials are going through to put on a college sports season are a complete waste of time.