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Are College football players guinea pigs for schools’ COVID-19 plans?


SportsPulse: As Christine Brennan points out, the Ivy League’s decisions have often been a tell tale sign for all college sports and it’s time to prepare for a fall without college football.


It was late June, two days before a college football player left home for school and voluntary workouts, when he got a group text message from a teammate who also is his roommate.

“Boys I have some news I just found out. I was exposed to covid while I was here and I have it now.”

Had the teammate not disclosed the news, the football player said, he might not have found another place to live while the teammate was infectious and in isolation.

The football coaches, medical staff and athletic director at the school never informed him his teammate had tested positive, said the football player, who spoke to USA TODAY on condition of anonymity and requested the name of the Division I school not be disclosed because he fears reprisal.

While college football players are routinely exposed to serious injury, this year many of them were exposed to COVID-19 more than two months before the general student body was scheduled to return to campus during the coronavirus pandemic. The football player who spoke to USA TODAY said he has sickle cell anemia and worries about research that indicates he and other Black people are at greater risk for getting infected.

College athletes came in ahead of the student body this summer. (Photo: James Lang, James Lang-USA TODAY Sports)

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Karen Weaver, an associate clinical professor of sports management at Drexel, has compared the football players to guinea pigs.

“How else do you look at the first group that comes back to campus as you’re trying to figure out what are the stressors in the system?’’ said Weaver, a former field hockey head coach at Ohio State.  “While I get that any good research study always should have a pilot study before it, these were real human beings. And were they acutely aware of all the different facets of how the enterprise is going to take care of  them?

“When you participate in a research study, you have to be able to give informed consent.  And that’s the question, were they able to give informed consent?’’

The Ivy League, Patriot League and Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference have canceled fall sports. But the 65 schools competing in the so-called Power Five conferences — Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern — are planning to play despite what Emory University research suggests are comparatively high risks related to COVID-19.

The 14 schools in the Southeastern Conference are located in counties with twice as many COVID-19 cases per capita than the rest of the country, said Shivani Patel, an assistant professor in Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, who cited data aggregated by the Emory Health Equity Dashboard.

Collectively, the Power Five conference schools are in counties where  the number of COVID-19 cases per capita are 30-percent higher than in the rest of the country, according to Patel.

“To hide behind the privacy issue I find to be shameful,’’ she said, “because if we’re going to make decisions about the safety of these players, the safety for the coaches, also the general student body at large once everyone returns to campus, we’re going to need to have disclosure.

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“I would say that is a major concern from a public health perspective because I think players need to know what is happening. The way that we can understand our own level of risk oftentimes is through comparison and through benchmarking. So if we don’t know what is happening in other conferences with other teams, it’s really hard to gauge if whatever we’re experiencing is typical.’’

The college football player who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the school for which he plays required him to sign a document  before he could begin voluntary workouts. According to a copy of the document viewed by USA TODAY, it states in part that the signee understands he may be at higher risk for exposure to COVID-19 because playing football involves close contact with others.

Almost half of college football players at the top 65 programs were Black in 2019, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport. Patel, the social epidemiologist from Emory, noted that African Americans are at a higher risk for poor COVID-19 outcomes, including death.

Citing that disparity, Dionne Koller, a law professor and Director of the Center for Sport and the Law at the University of Baltimore, said, “I think the rush to sort of say, ‘We can bring these athletes back, we can preserve our revenue streams,’ that fits the narrative that black athletes are being exploited for predominantly white coaches’ and administrators’ profit. I think it’s really fits the narrative, and I think it’s concerning.’’

The situation raises questions about the motivation for schools to bring college athletes back to campus several weeks ahead of the general student body, said Charles Clotfelter, an economist at Duke.

“The men and women who are presidents of universities who are otherwise nice, gentle people — they don’t kick their dogs — are now bringing some of their students into a potentially harmful situation,’’ said Clotfelter, author of “Big-Time Sports in American Universities,’’ a critical examination of commercialized sports. “Why might they do that?

“They probably wouldn’t do that to 85 randomly picked undergraduates. But they are doing it for football. Why is that? And so then you go back to the old Watergate phrase, just follow the money.’’

In fiscal 2019, NCAA Division I public-school athletic departments had just over $11.2 billion in revenue, according to school financial reports compiled by USA TODAY in partnership with Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

College athletes continue to fight for a share of the money that figures to be even more important during the pandemic.

The CARES Act provided $6 billion for U.S. colleges and universities but those schools lost an estimated $8 billion in room-and-board refunds alone when campuses shut down in the spring, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council of Education.

Then there are the expenditures necessitated by COVID-19. In June, during a Senate Committee on Health and Education hearing on ways to safely open campuses this fall, Purdue President Mitch Daniels said the school’s faculty will lecture from behind Plexiglas screens.

“All this will cost, before we’re done, tens of millions of dollars,” Daniels said, noting the school had bought more than a mile of Plexiglass.

Moody’s, the business and financial services company, in March downgraded its sector outlook for U.S. higher education to negative from stable due to revenue pressures from the coronavirus.

Hartle said the combination of revenue loss and new expenditures has “created a terrible storm for colleges and universities’’ and school presidents want to reopen campuses, as safely as they can.

“They have a financial reason to do that,’’ he said. “That’s where you have all your revenue streams.’’

Hartle added, “The decision to bring fall athletes back to campus for voluntary summer workouts was borne of a hope and desire to reopen campuses for normal operations in September.’’

The NCAA approved that voluntary workouts could begin June 1, and so that month thousands of athletes across the country reported to their respective schools.

“I think the question is, ‘Gosh, why are the football teams coming back and why are they coming back at this time?’’ said Koller, the law professor at the University of Baltimore who during recent Senate testimony said the NCAA and its member institutions “have done little to hold schools accountable for wide-ranging, persistent harms to athletes.’’

“Most reopening plans are focusing on the type of classes that can really only be done in person, very, very limited hybrid experiences for students. Sure, I think you can learn something and glean something from these reopenings and football practices that you’re maybe using in your other reopening plans. But I don’t think anybody signs up to play college football to be that kind of guinea pig.’’

Wesley Whistle, a senior advisor for policy and strategy with the Education Policy program, said football has an impact on school enrollment.

“It’s hard to quantify exactly what that is,’’ Whistle said. “But I think that will play a role.’’

He also said the absence of football also could result in decreased donations.

“There’s people that have loyalty to their school, but it’s hard to separate that they’re athletic fans and they go to all the games and that’s what keeps them engaged with the school,’’ Whistle said. “So I think not having these sports (would) be a major impact.’’

It takes no guesswork to quantify the significance of college football and other collegiate sports for the Power Five conferences. The Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern had more than $2.9 billion in combined revenue for the 2019 fiscal years, according to the conferences’ new federal tax records.

In May, Auburn basketball coach Bruce Pearl suggested the athletes had additional value to the university during the pandemic.

During an alumni association event, Pearl said he saw athletes’ return to campus as an opportunity to learn how to safely bring back the rest of the student body in the fall.

“Do we want to bring 24,000 students back here in August and try things on for the first time?’’ Pearl said. “Coming in and out of these classroom buildings, in and out of cafeterias?

“Let’s bring the athletes back as soon as we can, safely, and let’s figure it out.’’

At many schools, managing the return of athletes during the COVID-19 crisis has proved challenging. Clemson, winners of two of the past four national football titles, announced in late June that 37 of its players had tested positive.

Clemson announced this week a more conservative plan for reopening this fall just days after disclosing that six more athletes had tested positive for COVID-19. Since returning to Clemson June 1, the school disclosed, it had administered 722 tests and 53 came back positive — a positive rate of 7.3 percent.

LSU, the reigning national football champion, confirmed in June it had at least 30 players isolated because the players had tested positive for COVID-19 or they had come into contact with someone who had tested positive.

Schools that suspended voluntary workouts after players tested positive for COVID-19 included Boise State, East Carolina, Houston, Idaho State, Kansas, Louisiana Tech, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio State.

“What we’re learning from that is that it’s very hard to protect our students in this pandemic,’’ said Nancy Zimpher, chancellor emeritus at the State University of New York.

Since college football players returned to campus, 17 Power Five conference schools have modified their reopening plans, according to the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College. But Zimpher rejected the idea that college football players have been turned into guinea pigs.

“That diminishes what I believe to be the very cautionary note issued by presidents and athletic directors and coaches to make sure that students are safe,’’ she said. “And what happened? When we saw numbers of positive tests, we shut (voluntary workouts) down.’’

But Ramogi Huma, founder and president of National College Players Association — a non-profit group that advocates for college athletes — said he has heard from more than two dozen football players upset about how COVID-19 testing is being handled by their respective schools.

“These players I’m talking to are really angry,’’ said Huma, a former UCLA football player. “They are truly, genuinely angry. They’re realizing, from their mouth, they’re saying, ‘Our program doesn’t care about us.’ ”

The college football player who spoke to USA TODAY on the condition of anonymity is one of the players who has been in contact with Huma. He also said he is one of 20 to 25 players at his school who are talking about refusing to play this season because of COVID-19 concerns.

“I’m not out here just acting like everything’s normal when it’s not,’’ he said.

Contributing: Steve Berkowitz


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