More than 150 players at NCAA Division I revenue sports have tested positive for coronavirus, weeks after returning to their university campuses for voluntary workouts in early June. While not every program is disclosing positive test numbers, Clemson, Kansas State, the University of Texas, and the University of Iowa each report more than a dozen confirmed cases of coronavirus among the athletes who’ve come back to campus so far. Clemson is currently reporting the highest number, with 28 total confirmed cases, 23 of which are football players preparing for a still-scheduled 2020 season.
How, or why, are schools being allowed to put players in a situation where so many of them are getting sick? Via a loophole: Division I schools are currently prohibited from resuming official practices, but athletic departments have started so-called “voluntary workouts,” or preseason strength and conditioning sessions that aren’t led by coaches. On paper, voluntary workouts are optional, but coaches and former college athletes say it's not so black and white. Athletes are effectively being forced to put themselves at risk, and in one case even sign waivers that potentially indemnify the school if they get sick. This is all in spite of the fact that no one has figured out yet how college games will even happen this fall.
Football games are currently scheduled to begin on August 29; Anthony Fauci recently said it’s up to league officials to decide whether that actually happens. It’s impossible to imagine that new cases will decline dramatically in two months. So for now, athletes are traveling back to campus to carry on practicing amid the pandemic on the chance that the NCAA and its member schools will ultimately choose their multi-billion dollar bottom line over the health of uncompensated college athletes.
The NCAA gave clearance to all Division I programs to start voluntary workouts on June 1, and since then, all five conferences in the Division set their own start dates and began the process of bringing athletes back to campus. In safety guidelines for returning to sports during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, called the Core Principles of Resocialization of Collegiate Sport, the NCAA outlines gateway criteria that must be locally met before schools can resume official practices, fall camps, and competitions.
These criteria include “a downward trajectory of documented cases of COVID-19 within a 14-day period or a downward trajectory of positive tests as a percentage of total tests within a 14-day period.” With cases of coronavirus still rising in the United States, and reaching record-breaking highs in many of the states that are home to NCAA Division I schools, athletic departments, by these guidelines, are currently prohibited from resuming official organized practices or camps, hence the “voluntary” workouts.
"As a player, you want to show that you are committed, and that you are ready and you are excited to be a part of the team."
Voluntary workouts, sometimes called “captain” or “athlete-led practices,” are a regular component of college football preseason (and NCAA sports in general). In non-pandemic years, they are allowed to start nine weeks before the beginning of fall camp. The NCAA defines voluntary activities as any that student-athletes request or initiate themselves, and isn’t recorded for attendance or participation for the purposes of coaching staff. But as several NCAA coaches recently told CBS Sports, these rules are commonly bent and broken.
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“There are things that are quote-unquote voluntary, but they really aren’t all that voluntary,” Sam Acho, a former outside linebacker for the University of Texas, told VICE. “As a player, you want to show that you are committed, and that you are ready and you are excited to be a part of the team. Even at the professional level we have voluntary workouts, and 90-plus percent of the players show up. Not because they want to, but because they feel that if they don’t show up, the coaches will look at them as if they aren’t committed to the team.”
College coaches also admit that the term ‘voluntary” is misleading. “‘Voluntary,' sadly in our college game, has been a very loose term," Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley told CBS. "The reality is there are different institutions in different conferences that allow you to do a different amount or some just look the other way." OU plans to begin voluntary workouts on July 1, the latest start date for any program in the Big 12 Conference. Several OU players have tested positive, but aren’t yet back on campus.
Corey Robinson, a former quarterback for Notre Dame, reiterated in a recent NBC Sports broadcast that “voluntary” is a misnomer. “When it comes to voluntary, we had a saying back in the day called ‘mandatory optional,’” Robinson said. “And I think that’s what this is. You’re going to have people wondering, ‘oh, the SEC is coming back June 1, but then the Big Ten is thinking about June 8.’ People are gonna look for any edge they can get. I feel like I’d be pressured into wanting to play or wanting not to play.”
In emailed responses to an inquiry from VICE to 39 schools currently reporting positive cases of coronavirus among athletes, the 17 athletic departments that responded said that scholarships aren’t at risk if players decline to return for voluntary workouts. As of 2015, the NCAA prohibits scholarship funds from being revoked, reduced, or canceled for health or athletics reasons. But none of the schools responded to a question about how departments and coaches would reassure student-athletes that lesser but still-serious punishments, like losing playing time and or starting positions, wouldn’t happen if players declined to return for voluntary workouts.
“There is not a requirement to attend voluntary strength & conditioning workouts,” John Bianco, associate athletics director at the University of Texas, told VICE in an email. “Any discussions involving a specific student-athlete’s request relating to that would remain private and be handled on a case-by-case basis with each of the respective sports staffs.” As of June 18, or just four days after starting voluntary workouts, 13 Longhorn players had tested positive for coronavirus, with ten additional players in quarantine for probable contact.
While voluntary workout attendance isn’t supposed to be recorded for coaches, Acho said coaches and teammates can still exert pressure to be at voluntary activities. “It’s hard to prove that, as a player, you were punished because you didn’t show up,” he said. “The coach could just say, you’re not performing well.” Punishments could include diminished playing time or the loss of a starting position.
So far, only one NCAA team has formally sought protections for their health at workouts and practices, and against retaliation from coaches if they choose not to attend. Thirty members of the UCLA Bruins submitted a signed petition to coaching staff on June 19, which demands third-party oversight for following health guidelines and protections for any whistleblowers who report violations. The final point called for the “ability to make decisions with regard to personal health without consequences in terms of loss of scholarship or retaliation from coaches in any form. That is, it should be within an athlete’s discretion to put his or her health at risk and attend a sports related event without consequences.”
On the flip side, at least five programs have required returning athletes to sign so-called “pledges” initiated by the athletic department. A handful of schools, including Ohio State University, are requiring pledges to be signed by players as they start voluntary workouts during the ongoing pandemic. Each pledge emphasizes players’ responsibility to help prevent the spread of coronavirus by agreeing to testing and any necessary quarantine, and includes an understanding that there’s no guarantee against contracting coronavirus during athletic activities.
The most widely covered of these is Ohio State’s “Buckeye Pledge.” The Ohio State athletics department maintained in an email to VICE that the Buckeye Pledge is “ is not being looked at as a legal document,” despite that it requires a signature, and a parent or guardian signature for any athlete under 18. “It is intended as an educational component for student-athletes and their parents as part of our return to workouts protocols,” Jerry Emig, associate athletics director at Ohio State, said via email. “It is an acknowledgement by our student-athletes of their responsibility to keep themselves, fellow students and the Ohio State community safe during this crisis.”
Acho looks at the pledges as waivers, designed to absolve the school from responsibility if a player gets sick or suffers complications from coronavirus. “It’s ridiculous to ask an 18 year old to sign a waiver, so he can go play for a school and put himself at risk, and the coach gets to stand on the sideline or in his office,” he said.
Lawyers who reviewed the document for Cleveland.com believe the pledges could be legally defensible. “At a minimum it could be construed to be comparable to a permission slip, which does not contain legalese," Marc Edelman, a professor at the City University of New York whose specialties include sports law, said. "Some courts have held up permission slips as a legal waiver.”
Even without signed pledges, athletic departments should very much understand the risks placed on athletes by returning to voluntary workouts for a season that may not even exist. In a recent teleconference, the University of Florida, where at least two athletes have tested positive for coronavirus since returning to campus, David Werner, a UF basketball coach, outlined, in detail, the ways in which the school is trying to prevent any outbreaks. “The risk mitigation is really the key part of what we’re trying to do,” Werner said. “We’re trying to keep our positives down, obviously.”
But at the same time, the University of Florida also seems to be ok with the reality that no amount of precaution can prevent athletes from getting sick, if they are back on campus. “Dating back to April, we’ve had a total of 11 student-athletes from several of our teams test positive,” Steve McClain, senior associate athletics director, said via email. “As we’ve said before, we will have positive tests and with guidance from UF Health, we feel we are well positioned to manage those cases.”
Bianco at the University of Texas similarly said he “fully expected that we'd have some COVID-19 cases,” and also that the athletic department “fully expect[s] the number of cases within the team to level off and continue to improve as we go forward and prepare for the 2020 Football season.”
As cases and hospitalizations in Texas and surrounding states surge and break new records every day, it’s not clear how reasonable it is to expect there to be a 2020 season, or what anyone is actually practicing for. There’s certainly a financial incentive to holding the season as planned. Walt Maddox, the mayor of Tuscaloosa, where the University of Alabama and Bryant Denny Stadium are located, recently said his city would be financially devastated without Bama football.
“It’s about a hotel owner being able to pay his or her employees,” Maddox told WBRC in Tuscaloosa. “It’s about a restaurant being able to pay their small business loan. It’s about a family trying to make their mortgage payment. It’s more than just a game.”
"I’d be wondering, why is everyone else quarantining, but I’m defying government rules to go play a game?"
The financial incentives for coaches, athletic departments, universities, and state and city economies stop short of reaching the unpaid players. “The mayor of Tuscaloosa says the city wouldn’t be able to survive if Bama didn’t have a season—that says something,” Acho said. “These players are getting paid zero dollars. Zero. Some get a chance to go to the NFL, but not all. Many get injured; we all know the percentages of players who make it to the NFL. That head coach is getting paid millions.”
Acho is ten years removed from his college football career and is among the less than four percent of players who get drafted into the NFL. Thinking of what players are going through now, as they return to voluntary workouts as the pandemic continues, he sees the dangers he was blind to as a college player.
“If I was 18, 19 years old, internally, I would be very frustrated and confused,” he said. “I’d be wondering, why is everyone else quarantining, but I’m defying government rules to go play a game? But I probably wouldn’t speak up, because I’m trying to make it to the NFL. I don’t want the coach to think I’m not committed.”
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