NORFOLK, Va. - We knew the first day of Old Dominion University's 2020 football practice would be different than years past. However, Thursday provided even more change than expected.
The Monarchs, the lone college football team in our area yet to cancel or suspend its 2020 season due to COVID-19, conducted their first practices of the season Thursday - and did so under the guidance of first-year head coach Ricky Rahne. In accordance with regional restrictions due to the pandemic, ODU split its workouts up into three afternoon sessions so that no more than 50 people (coaches, staff members and players) were gathered at one time.
ODU officials announced football practices, the first-ever full-team workouts under Rahne - who saw his inaugural spring practice canceled due to the virus, are closed to the media. COVID-19 was cited as reason for the lack of access in 2020. Former head coach Bobby Wilder rarely, if ever, prevented local media from attending and filming ODU practices. Granted, there was no global health crisis during Wilder's 11-year reign as the first head coach in program history.
After 8 p.m. on the eve of Rahne's first practices, ODU abruptly canceled the first-time head coach's scheduled Thursday post-practice interview with local media - a session that was also expected to include a student-athlete. An ODU spokesman said, in a statement, "due to the nature of having three practices per day, and not being able to accurately account for all position groups at practice," local media would not be permitted to interview Rahne or any players until Monday - four days after the team opens camp.
So, since News 3 was unable to ask ODU coaches or players about the challenges and protocols of practicing football amid a global pandemic, we interviewed an epidemiologist about that very topic.
"There are several things to consider - one of them is the fact that in football, you are breathing in close quarters," explained Elizabeth C. Prom-Wormley, Ph.D., M.P.H.
Dr. Prom-Wormley is an assistant professor in the Division of Epidemiology of Virginia Commonwealth University's Department of Family Medicine and Population Health. Even after an ODU football staff member shut the gate to the practice field upon seeing our News 3 camera filming through the opening from across the street, it was still evident the Monarchs were not practicing in full pads yet. However, Dr. Prom-Wormley sayd there are still issues at hand - and in hand.
"You're hot, you're sweating - so you're going to want to touch your face to get rid of the sweat," Dr. Prom-Wormley noted to News 3 Sports Director Adam Winkler. "You might have been touching the ball, and who knows how many other people have been touching the ball as well. And touching those shared surfaces and touching your face puts you at increased risk for potentially getting the virus."
And as ODU practices in the city of Norfolk, where the seven-day average positivity rate is 11.3 percent, Dr. Prom-Wormley says coaches may be able to draw up plays on the field - but it's outside the lines where there's concern.
"College life is about interacting with other people, and it's hard to be able to monitor outside of the team space."
And as we are learning, the ability to monitor ODU players and coaches is more difficult than it's been in the past.