Why women’s volleyball and soccer should get a green light this fall 

While no one knows if colleges and universities are doing enough to ensure that student-athletes remain healthy, recent data may provide a clue of what to expect.

Many college and universities around the nation are preparing not only for students to return to campus, but also for their student-athletes to start competition. With an abrupt end to spring varsity sports in March brought about by COVID-19, highlighted with the cancellation of March Madness for Men’s and Women’s Basketball, student-athletes are hungry to step back onto the court.

Sheldon H. Jacobson, University of Illinois
Sheldon H. Jacobson, University of Illinois

Although college football has attracted the most attention on this issue so far, women’s volleyball is front and center on the fall intercollegiate agenda at many universities.

In the 2019-2020 academic year, there were 5,582 women volleyball student-athletes competing on 336 Division 1 teams.  Power conferences like the Big 10 and the Pac 12 have been dominant on the national stage, sending numerous teams to the NCAA tournament in recent years.  In fact, 11 of the past 12 national champions and 8 of the past 12 national runner-ups have been from these two conferences. Big 10 teams like Minnesota, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Nebraska, and  Pac12 teams like Stanford and USC, are perennial favorites in preseason polls.  The start of fall practice and competition presents the first chance for these teams to compete under the COVID-19 cloak of uncertainty.

Given all the challenges of playing a sport in a COVID-19 environment, schools are taking enormous precautions to protect their student athletes, including frequent testing and creating player bubbles, in addition to campus-wide requirements for physical distancing, wearing face coverings, and hand hygiene.

Even with all such precautions, are universities doing enough to ensure that these players remain healthy?  Will players become ill?  Will they require hospitalization?  Will a player die during the season?

No one has a crystal ball to answer such questions.  However, recent data may provide a clue of what to expect.

Modeling COVID-19 female deaths in the 18-24-year-old cohort in the population, the likelihood that a randomly selected woman in this group died from any cause from March through May 2020, based on CDC reported data, was over one in 10,000.  Amongst such deaths, just over 2% of them listed COVID-19 as the cause.  Using such data, if we consider a group of 5,582 randomly selected women in this age group, there is a 99.9% likelihood that if the COVID-19 infection rate were as high as 75% amongst such women, an unrealistically high rate to expect, the expected number of deaths would still be below one.

Women’s volleyball players tend to be taller than the majority of 18-24-year-old women in the population, and in better physical condition.  Obesity, an underlying health condition associated with poor outcomes with COVID-19, is rare amongst college volleyball players.  Therefore, the risk of a death amongst college volleyball players is likely even lower than in the general population for their age group, with a chance of occurring only if the infection rate is unrealistically high.

The same analysis can be applied to Division I women’s soccer, where there are 9,588 student-athletes playing for 338 teams.  The conclusions are the same as for volleyball, except the threshold infection rate drops from 75% to 44%, still quite high to expect.  However, given that women’s soccer is practiced and played outdoors, some of this additional risk may be mitigated.

The key finding from this analysis is that COVID-19 presents a minimal risk to both college women’s volleyball and soccer student athletes.  If there is any risk of concern, it is to coaches and spectators who may be older or who may have underlying health conditions. Ensuring their safety and health should be the top priority of campus athletic directors.

Sheldon H. Jacobson is a Founder Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  He applies his expertise in data-driven risk assessment to evaluate and inform public policy and public health.


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