The U.S. Naval Academy sits on a 338-acre plot of land in Annapolis, Md., that hugs up against the Severn River and is surrounded by walls. There are two entrances with guards and no visitors are allowed, only workers with the proper identification.


Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo watches a replay during the Liberty Bowl against Kansas State in Memphis, Tenn., in December. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

Those natural barriers and restrictions make Navy one of the safest football programs in the country as universities and conferences attempt to navigate the challenge of playing during a global pandemic.

“Being on a military installation, so to speak, it helps you,” coach Ken Niumatalolo said, “The bubble is literal, so to speak.”

The 2020 college football season began to have a bit of clarity this week as the Big Ten and Pac-12 both postponed their seasons. The Mountain West and Mid-American Conference also postponed. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Big 12, SEC and ACC are forging ahead with their football schedules despite widespread concerns about player safety.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN in June that football players need a bubble environment that is isolated from others to have successful seasons this fall and winter.

“Unless players are essentially in a bubble — insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day — it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” Fauci told the network. “If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year.”


Bubble environments have proved to be successful thus far. Both the NBA and WNBA are in the midst of uninterrupted seasons in Florida with each recently reporting no new positive tests. The NHL constructed bubbles in two hub cities and reported zero positive tests last week out of more than 7,000 taken.

On the flip side is Major League Baseball, which made the decision to not have a bubble and allow teams to play at their home ballparks. A pair of Cleveland Indians pitchers recently entered quarantine after violating protocols, the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins experienced coronavirus outbreaks and a New York Mets pitcher recently opted out. Thirty games had been postponed due to coronavirus concerns as of Aug. 13, according to CBS Sports.

On the collegiate level, many programs across the country have dealt with outbreaks. Both Michigan State and Rutgers had to quarantine their entire teams and defending national champion LSU had to quarantine 30 players in June, according to Sports Illustrated.

Navy won’t release testing data under Defense Department rules, but officials are confident their bubble is working. The Midshipmen returned to the Yard in early July and immediately quarantined two to a room for two weeks. Practices have been highly monitored with social distancing and other precautions in place. Tackling dummies and pads have largely replaced live tackling, blocking and hitting. Niumatalolo has even suspended direct face-to-face interactions during drills between offensive and defensive lines, for example, due to worries that one positive test could take out an entire position group or multiple starters. New drills have been constructed and players are running them in smaller groups. Water bottles are no longer being shared. Meetings are still being held virtually and players no longer shower at the facilities.

Niumatalolo said they’re still trying to figure out the best ways to practice and called it “creative coaching.”

“It’s hard,” Navy slot back Myles Fells said. “This is not how you usually prepare for football. … You do what you’ve got to do to play.”


Bubble life at Navy, however, can be extremely boring. Players haven’t left the Academy since early July and are not permitted to do so. They can’t even go to get food and there are no corporate restaurants within the walls, though food delivery services have been recently permitted.

“You want to get off the Yard,” Niumatalolo said. “Nobody wants to be locked away. It’s kind of nice to know you’re safe, but it’s be nice to know you can go outside the Yard and go downtown and go to Mission BBQ or something. … Right now that’s not the case.”

One other facet of Navy life that Niumatalolo hopes helps keep the team healthy is the foundation of discipline that the entire military is built on. Some coaches and players, including Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, have argued that the football facilities on campus are much safer for players than going home or other places. Those players, however, probably still have to leave the facilities at some point and that’s where the worries begin. One of the most difficult aspects to regulate is what those players do during their free time. Three Louisville soccer players were recently dismissed from the team for after an outbreak occurred following an off-campus party. The Seattle Seahawks cut cornerback Kemah Siverand on Thursday for attempting to sneak a woman into the team hotel.

Navy is counting on their discipline to carry over to adhering to safety protocols.

“We talk about being the most disciplined football team in the country,” Niumatalolo said. “We pride ourselves on being the most disciplined, the closest, the toughest. That’s where our focus has been, we have to stay disciplined.”

Navy cornerback Cameron Kinley knows for a fact that Navy’s actions surpasses some others, though he’s not thrilled about the scenario. His little brother Richard is a defensive end at Middle Tennessee State and the two have compared notes.

The older Kinley came away feeling good about the Midshipmen’s bubble and a bit worried for little brother.

“Of course, their precautions are not the same as ours,” Kinley said. “It’s a little different. I hate it for him that they’re not taking the same precautions.

“I have no worries. We’re taking the exact precautions we need to. We kind of look at the Naval Academy like a bubble, kind of like what the NBA has going on right now. It seems slow right now. Some people might say we’re behind (in preparation). But I look at it as kind of a long-term race.”

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