Decision Time for Athletics

Division I and college leaders are responding to pressure from players to prioritize their health during the coronavirus pandemic. Some leaders have decided that fall athletic competition isn't safe and canceled the season, while others are holding out hope they can still play this year.

August 6, 2020
 
Colorado State Athletics
An athletics staff member at Colorado State University cleans workout equipment in Canvas Stadium.

It became clear ​to Randy Edsall this week that it was not feasible for the University of Connecticut football team to play during the 2020-21 academic year. Twenty-two players had missed workouts over the last month due to suspected symptoms of coronavirus infections or possible exposure to those thought to be infected, said Edsall, the head coach.

The UConn football program has not confirmed that any athlete tested positive for the virus, unlike many other colleges that have reported cases in recent weeks, Edsall said on a conference call with reporters Aug. 5. But the mere suspicion that players had been exposed to COVID-19 was enough to send them into multiday quarantines. With this in mind, the athletic department announced it would cancel football this year and became the first team in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, or FBS, which includes the top teams in the nation, to make such a decision.

“Knowing that to these young kids -- you’re their teacher, you’re their mentor, you’re their coaches -- you become the parent away from home,” Edsall said. “The No. 1 thing is that you do have to make decisions that keep their health and safety and welfare at the highest level because of the commitment you have to them and to their parents, knowing that we can control this situation.”

UConn’s choice is not reflective of other Division I programs. In fact, the institution currently stands alone among its peers in making such an early and unequivocal decision. The NCAA’s Division II and III on Wednesday called off their fall sports championships, but Division I has yet to make its own decision. Meanwhile, athletes at Division I colleges are increasingly raising red flags about their institutions failing to follow public health protocols to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, even as their football programs fight infection outbreaks.

But the decision to cancel may have come easier to UConn, whose football team is currently not affiliated with a conference and has lately experienced financial losses, said Nick Schlereth, a recreation and sport management professor at Coastal Carolina University who studies cash flow in collegiate athletics. He noted that UConn will save money by not playing football and that this is not the case for colleges that heavily rely on revenue generated by their football programs.

“They need the money,” he said. “When they think about fundraising, they need that outlet as a way to connect with donors in some capacity. Even if it’s not face-to-face, they’re still connecting them in some way to football … When you have schools making millions of dollars a year off of media rights, that’s a big chunk of change.”

Schlereth doubts that league officials, coaches and university administrators are putting the health and safety of athletes first as they map out plans for the remainder of the year. He believes the motivation for pushing ahead with football programs is “100 percent” about revenue.

Many college football players apparently agree. Several spoke out publicly this week and said their well-being is not being prioritized. In some cases, players said even concerns that they might be experiencing COVID-19 symptoms are being suppressed.

Football players and athletics staff members at Colorado State University spoke anonymously to the Fort Collins Coloradoan newspaper and said coaches had threatened reduced playing time for athletes who had to quarantine and discouraged players from reporting symptoms to athletics staff. The measures were part of an effort to keep summer workouts on track, the players and staff members told the newspaper. Team activities are currently on pause until Aug. 13 because 11 players have tested positive for COVID-19, according to press releases from the athletics department.

Colorado State president Joyce McConnell strongly condemned the alleged pressure tactics. She said the university would hire an independent investigator to look into the allegations, and if they are true, they will consider terminating the athletics staff responsible.

“I am absolutely intolerant of any bending of the protocol,” McConnell said in an interview. “My top priority is to keep our athletes healthy … I was shocked to find this out and if true, it’s intolerable.”

McConnell said no matter what happens with the fall season -- if the Mountain West Conference, where Colorado State competes, decides to further postpone or cancel competition -- the university will be losing revenue. The seating in Colorado State’s relatively new Canvas Stadium would have to be completely modified in order to meet social distancing guidelines, she said. Stadium operations, including ticket sales, parking and advertising, alone generated about $15.8 million for the university during 2018-19 academic year, its second year in operation, according to an athletic department report to the Colorado State Board of Governors.

“Even if the season were to continue, there could be an economic impact,” McConnell said. “As serious as economic times are right now and how much has been affected by COVID in terms of how universities operate, there’s nothing more important than keeping students and staff safe. We’re all facing economic disruption, and yet that pales the obligation and responsibility we feel to keep people healthy.”

Bailyn Furrow, a captain on the Colorado State women’s soccer team and director of operations for the university’s Student Athlete Advisory Council, believes the program's COVID-19 protocols have been handled well. Team members returned to Fort Collins to start workouts on July 10, and players are being tested for coronavirus every other week and are required to wear face masks at all times unless they're doing strenuous exercise, such as sprints, she said. Furrow said the team’s biggest concern right now is whether it is preparing for a fall season that won’t happen; the Mountain West Conference has not yet announced its plan for fall athletics.

“As far as our soccer team’s concerns, the big one right now is whether we’re going to put in all this work, prepare for games then have what happened in the spring happen to us,” Furrow said. “Especially watching all these other conferences move to the spring, it’s kind of like a waiting game. When will it happen to us? Will it happen to us? Even though we’re putting in all these safety precautions, realistically will we be able to [compete]?”

Furrow said some clarity from the conference would help dispel rumors about the upcoming season. She also noted possible discrepancies between how Colorado State and other teams in the conference could be handling coronavirus protocols, and the likelihood that she could be infected by a player at a university that has lax COVID-19 testing procedures.

“But in the long run, you can get it from the grocery store, too,” Furrow said. “I don’t really feel threatened by playing other schools with different procedures. There’s a hundred ways you can get it and I don’t think that sports would be the one.”

Other athletic programs have had their fair share of criticism this week from athletes, primarily football players. Landon White, a kicker for the Eastern Kentucky University football team, announced in an Aug. 4 Instagram post that he had quit the team due to the program’s alleged “little or no testing” for COVID-19, symptomatic players being allowed to continue practicing, and the continuation of practice despite these concerns.

Football players in the Big 10 Conference, which includes some of the country’s most competitive programs, joined calls by Pac-12 Conference players for unified and improved health and safety protocols for college athletes from the NCAA. The Big 10 players said they are aligned with College Athlete Unity, an organization recently formed to represent athletes across the NCAA and other intercollegiate sport associations.

“We are deeply disappointed with the lack of leadership demonstrated by the NCAA with respect to player safety during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Big 10 players wrote in a letter published by The Players’ Tribune on Aug. 5. “We believe that the NCAA must -- on its own and through collaboration with the conference -- devise a comprehensive plan to ensure the safety and well-being of players leading up to and during the upcoming fall season.”

Later that same day, the NCAA Board of Governors released specific requirements for institutions and athletic conferences to meet in order to conduct sports this fall, leaving it up to each NCAA division to decide whether it can meet those “strict conditions.” Up to that point, the NCAA had published a set of guidelines for return to sport that was recommended but not required for universities to begin preseason activities.

Included in the Aug. 5 requirements were plans for the NCAA to set up a hotline and email address for athletes and parents to report failures by their institutions to protect player health and safety, a blanket requirement to allow players to opt out without penalty if they have concerns about COVID-19, and a ban on any agreements that waive athletes’ legal rights should they become ill with the virus, a press release from the NCAA said.

Colleges will also now be required to cover athletes’ out-of-pocket medical expenses related to COVID-19, and fall sports championships “must be conducted with enhanced safety protocols” such as regular testing, social distancing and mask wearing when not playing games, the release said.

The NCAA’s Division III President’s Council quickly decided it could not meet these requirements and canceled its fall championships. Division II also announced it would cancel fall championships “due to the operational, logistical and financial challenges” of the pandemic. The Division I President’s Council will have to make a decision on its championships by Aug. 21.

While athletes have called out what they describe as a “lack of leadership” from the NCAA, Edsall, the UConn coach, said as an individual football program, the university has embraced its ability to make an autonomous decision. He said he didn’t think much about being the first in the FBS to cancel the season. UConn officials simply listened to what players said is right for them.

“When you’re in a leadership position, you have to make the decisions for the people who you’re leading,” Edsall said. “We don’t even look at the fact that we’re the first one to do it. We look at it as we’re doing right by the young people we represent.”

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