Instead of focusing on elevating his conference’s brand and preparing for what should be an exciting year of college football, American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco has been doing his part to put in place and finalize protocols to keep student-athletes under his charge safe from the COVID-19 virus.

The first step was creating a conference Medical Advisory Group comprised of health professionals from every member institution, whose job it has been to offer expert advice and suggestions on the matter of health and safety. While some AAC schools, ECU being one of them, have had to hit the pause button on football workouts at points this summer, both the University of Houston and the Pirates have resumed activities in recent days.

Overall, the AAC has been fairly successful in keeping COVID-19 out of football locker rooms, something that is necessary for workouts and practices to continue.

“They (the Medical Advisory Group) haven’t told us to stop,” Aresco told Patrick Johnson on 94.3 The Game on Thursday. “If they told us to stop, I think our presidents and chancellors would take it very seriously.  They feel we’re developing very reasonable protocols.”

Those protocols, which are set to include COVID-19 testing 72 hours before football games, require student-athletes, coaches and staff to wear masks when not working out, while maintaining social distance in facilities like film and weight rooms.

With comprehensive measures in place to ensure the well-being of players and those around them, Aresco believes student-athletes are safer participating in sports this fall than the alternative option.

“My point all along has been, when you do something there’s always a reaction, it’s never done in a vacuum,” Aresco said. “If you decide not to play fall sports, are our student-athletes better off? I don’t know that they would be. If they’re in a controlled environment playing sports, they’re going to be tested weekly, which they wouldn’t be if they weren’t playing sports. They would be on the campus, they would be off the campus, they might even go home. They’re not going to be tested, they do the things 18-22-year-old’s do, they could pick-up the virus and not even know it, spread it around.

“In our environment, they’re going to be tested, they’re going to be given health screenings, they’re going to be given temperature checks daily. They’ll be using pristine facilities, cleaned to the highest level, which is not true of local gyms if they happen to go to a local gym. Are they really necessarily better off not playing sports? Plus, they want to play sports. Ninety to 100% of them, if you polled them, want to play. It means a lot to them, it means a lot to their futures.”

Across the country, major sports leagues like the NBA, NFL and MLB are attempting to start or restart seasons by implementing a bubble around its players. While the plan is for AAC members schools to do their best impression of that on game days this fall, student-athletes still have to go to class, adding an extra layer of risk to amateur athletics.

Without sports this fall, Aresco’s argument is players might not be getting tested on a regular basis after potentially coming into contact with an infected student or someone off campus. That, of course, would never be ideal, but with a season, players will have access to some of the best health care available through their teams while being afforded the opportunity to have quick turnaround times on tests.

As things stand right now, ECU student-athletes will be attending at least some classes, albeit with proper social distancing guidance in place. Nevertheless, Aresco knows the risk level will never completely go away, but mitigating that risk as much as possible will be the key.

“Then the question becomes: can you do it with a reasonable level of risk? You can’t eliminate risk…We’re doing everything we can to prevent anybody getting the virus,” Aresco said. “Let’s see if these protocols can work. If we have disruptions, sure, we might have to temporarily shut things down or permanently shut things down, we don’t know that. I don’t think we’re even close to making those kinds of decisions. I think right now, let’s put one step ahead of the other and see whether we can play in a safe and responsible fashion.”

Getting to a point where collegiate conferences can reduce risk to an acceptable level will be difficult. Keeping players, coaches and staff in a bubble as much as possible while also balancing the necessities of everyday life will be equality, or not more, difficult.

That is where the protocols that Aresco, the Medical Advisory Group and health officials have been working on come into play. For nearly six months, protocols have been drawn up to include every little detail of a game week and game day that could spell the difference between having a complete football season, pausing in the middle of one, or not having one at all.

“We have spent five months — it’s groundhog day everyday in terms of new information, in terms of going over the same terrain,” Aresco said. “We have put every kind of protocol that is reasonable in place. We’ve even gotten down to bus drivers. Are we going to try to test bus drivers, are we going to have screenings for bus drivers, are we going to have protective shields for anyone getting on a bus? We’ve got protocols for meals, we’ve got protocols for the hotels, we’ve got protocols for everything. We’re trying to do everything we can to reduce the risk.”

Listen to Patrick Johnson’s full interview with Mike Aresco that first aired on 94.3 The Game on Thursday below, beginning around the 45-minute mark:

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