Study: NCAA COVID Restrictions Helped Control Virus Transmission

People playing soccer.

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Key Takeaways

  • Participation in collegiate athletics was not connected to higher COVID-19 test positivity in the 2020-21 academic year. 
  • Mitigation measures like frequent testing, masking, and social distancing played a role in lower test positivity rates in athletes versus non-athletes.
  • Researchers say the findings can reassure people that sports can be conducted in a safe manner.

During the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people worried that playing and competing in sports could lead to an increase in cases and more spread of the virus. This led to cancellations of sporting practices and events, impacting all athletes mainly on the collegiate and professional levels.

However, a cross-sectional study—published February 2022 in Jama Network Open—found participation in collegiate athletics was not tied to higher COVID-19 test positivity in the 2020-21 academic year.

In spring 2020, collegiate athletics were put on pause over concerns about the spread of COVID-19. Later in the pandemic when activities were allowed to take place, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) implemented strict mitigation measures, such as physical distancing, wearing a face-covering, and testing policies. They also required athletes in high-risk transmission sports like football and basketball to be tested at least once a week using a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.  

"Seeing the widespread implementation of transmission mitigation precautions from the NCAA, we were interested in looking at how effective these measures were by comparing student-athlete SARS-CoV-2 test positivity to the non-athlete population," Emily Schultz, co-author and Stanford student-athlete, told Verywell in an email.

Schultz and her colleagues from Stanford University included more than half a million NCAA Division 1 athletes and 3.5 million non-athletes in their analysis. They used data from public official COVID-19 dashboards and press releases on 65 Power 5 NCAA Division 1 universities during 2020 and 2021. Schools that released at least four months of testing data, including the fall 2020 football seasons, for student-athletes and non-athletes were also included in the study. 

Nine Universities Had Lower COVID-19 Test Positivity In Athletes 

The researchers found that of 12 schools with a total of 555,372 student-athletes and 3,482,845 non-athletes, nine universities had lower COVID-19 test positivity among athletes than non-athletes. 

Those schools included: 

  • University of Arkansas
  • University of Minnesota
  • Penn State University
  • Clemson University
  • University of Louisville
  • Purdue University
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Illinois
  • University of Virginia

The median COVID-19 test positivity at the nine universities was 0.46% for student-athletes and 1.04% for non-athletes. At one school, test positivity was higher in the athlete group than in non-athletes (Stanford, 0.20% vs. 0.05%). At the remaining two schools, there was no significant difference in COVID-19 test positivity. 

In total there were 2,425 positive tests (0.44%) among student-athletes and 30,567 positive tests (0.88%) in non-athletes. According to the authors, there was no statistically significant difference in student-athlete test positivity between the included schools. However, test positivity among non-athlete students varied considerably between institutions.

Mitigation Measures Played A Role

Based on these findings, the researchers concluded participation in intercollegiate athletics was not associated with higher COVID-19 test positivity potentially because of mitigation protocols implemented by the NCAA. 

While there have been published reports of local outbreaks linked to sports competitions (typically coming from the audience/community), the study suggests test positivity in student-athletes was no higher than in non-athletes, and in many cases, it was lower, Calvin Hwang, MD, co-author and clinical assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at Stanford University, told Verywell in an email. 

“One significant driver in the lower test positivity in student-athletes is the fact that they were being tested more frequently, in general, compared to non-athletes at various schools,” Hwang added. “Someone that tests more often will have a lower test positivity just by the fact that the denominator for the number of tests is larger.” 

Regular surveillance testing allowed for the mitigation of virus transmission by identifying athletes with potentially asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections and preventing the spread of disease by isolating those individuals early on the course of their infection, Schultz said.

And even when test positivity was smaller in schools that required weekly testing for all students, there was still a lower test positivity in student-athletes at those schools, Hwang noted. In addition, the repercussions of testing positive (missing practice or important competitions), as well as putting close contacts like teammates into quarantine, may have served as motivation for athletes to follow closely the NCAA mitigation measures outside of practice or competitions. 

Even though athletes were in close contact from practice, competitions, and traveling, athletes were required to wear face coverings and physically distance themselves from others in those settings. This could have played a role in lower test positivity rates in athletes compared to non-athletes,  according to Schultz. 

The researchers also highlighted that some schools required once or twice weekly testing, while others only tested upon the development of symptoms. However, institutions with the most frequent testing protocols had the lowest test positivity in non-athletes. 

“This [testing] was likely the greatest driver of the difference in non-athletes test positivity among institutions with varying local public health restrictions making up most of the remainder,” Schultz said. 

What This Means For You

Even if you are a healthy athlete and may have lower risks for dangerous outcomes from COVID-19 infection, it doesn't mean you're immune. Taking safety precautions while you practice the sport is important.

Applying These Findings

Based on the findings of this study and other growing body of evidence regarding curbing infection, illness, and transmission, Schultz and Hwang say it can reassure communities that athletics can be conducted in a manner that does not increase the risk of virus transmission during the COVID-19 pandemic with the establishment of surveillance and other mitigation strategies implemented by the NCAA. 

Even though the study represented a smaller cohort of institutions during the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors said they feel the findings can be applied to the broader student-athlete population to allow for the continuation of collegiate athletics particularly in the setting of the widespread availability of vaccines and potentially less virulent strains of the virus.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. ESPN News Services. List of sporting events canceled because of the coronavirus.

  2. Schultz E, Kussman A, Jerome A, Abrams G, Hwang C. Comparison of SARS-CoV-2 test positivity in NCAA Division I student athletes vs nonathletes at 12 institutionsJAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(2). doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.47805

By Alyssa Hui
Alyssa Hui is a St. Louis-based health and science news writer. She was the 2020 recipient of the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association Jack Shelley Award.