When Kansas State opened the doors to its athletic facilities, welcoming its football players back to campus starting the first weekend in June, administrators breathed a sigh of relief once the first batch of coronavirus tests came back.
The first wave of athletes spent a week in quarantine before voluntary workouts, as all players were required to do, and the score card was pristine: 90 tests, zero positives.
Another six players straggled in a day or two later and were swabbed. Again, no positives.
Then, by June 12, the final group of 24 arrivals — largely freshmen — was tested. But just a week later, Kansas State shut down its workouts until at least mid-July after two positive cases in that final group morphed into four and then eight before leaping to 14, as nearly half the team needed to be checked again.
With its announcement Saturday, Kansas State became the first school from a Power 5 conference to shut down football activities. Two other Football Bowl Subdivision schools did the same after outbreaks among their athletes, with Houston making the decision June 12 and Boise State on Monday.
The swift escalation at Kansas State, from clean slate to clampdown, shows how perilous it can be for universities — even with sanitized facilities, extensive protocols and without blocking and tackling in football practices — to bring athletes back to campuses as more than half the country is experiencing spikes in coronavirus cases.
Among the states with the most severe outbreaks in the United States is football-mad Texas, which has seen such a sharp rise in infections — more than 5,000 new cases were reported Tuesday — that Gov. Greg Abbott, who had been bullish on an early reopening last month, urged residents to stay indoors.
As university presidents, knowing the many millions of dollars that football generates, planned to open their campuses later this summer, there were other examples in the past week to give them pause. At Clemson, 28 athletes — including 23 football players — tested positive for the coronavirus. At Texas, 13 players tested positive and another 10 were self-isolating. And at Louisiana State, the reigning national champion, at least 30 players were in quarantine, according to Sports Illustrated.
“I think everyone realizes the plan is written in pencil,” said Heather Lyke, the athletic director at Pittsburgh and a member of the NCAA Division I Council, which last week approved guidelines for how teams can practice leading into the season.
She added: “It’s frankly hard to predict where things are going to go. The point where the council approved the calendar, things were in a reasonable state.”
If the future is murky, so, too, is the breadth of recent cases. There have been confirmed positive tests at 23 of the 130 FBS schools, but some public schools — including Ohio State, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina — have refused to release testing data of their athletes, claiming that federal laws prohibiting the release of students’ personal information allow them to not release aggregated data.
And given the cost of testing — close to $100 each at Kansas State, which will have about 120 players plus coaches and staff to test — schools with tighter budgets will surely consider fewer tests. At UCLA, 30 players — including the team’s starting quarterback — demanded in a letter that a third-party health official be present when they participate in football-related activities because they did not trust school officials to act in their best interest with the virus.
“It shows this blatant disregard for what’s going on in the nation and around the world with this pandemic,” said Billy Hawkins, a University of Houston professor who has written on the Black athletic experience. He lauded the UCLA players and said workouts around the country should not take place until there is a vaccine or schools can assure players, who are not paid salaries, that they will not get sick.
“If they continue in this voluntary phase, if they continue along this path, obviously more cases are going to emerge in this population,” Hawkins added. “What scares me the most is when I hear people say, ‘Oh, they’re young. It’s easier to recover.’ I don’t know if that’s a guarantee.”
The decision by Kansas State to halt workouts was straightforward.
Gene Taylor, Kansas State’s athletic director, said it was becoming too difficult to regulate close contact among the players, and that there was concern that a recent surge in cases could overwhelm the local health care system in Manhattan, Kansas, a college town two hours west of Kansas City with about 55,000 residents and a main hospital with only about 12 intensive care beds available.
“We may not have the capacity if this thing takes off and there were hospitalizations,” Taylor said. “We want to monitor the ones in quarantine, make sure we don’t have more positives. We’ll take a pause, then retest again when we get back.”
Taylor said what contributed to the outbreak was the three-day gap between the testing on June 12, a Friday, and getting the results June 15, a Monday. The initial two players who tested positive had spent the weekend with groups of teammates — one at an apartment playing video games with anywhere between eight and 15 players, and the other who went with a group to nearby Tuttle Creek Lake, a popular recreation spot.
When players reported June 15, the day workouts began, there were two more players who had fevers, a symptom of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. As those who were in close contact with infected players were tested again, more positives cropped up — which led to more testing.
In all, close to 55 players were retested, Taylor said.
“It rolled through the week like that and by Friday we got together and said ‘We’ve got to make a decision,’” Taylor said.
The players congregating without masks or social distancing made innocent mistakes, Taylor said. But in a Zoom meeting last Wednesday with coach Chris Klieman, the players and their parents, Taylor told players they could lose their scholarships if they did not follow protocols — just the way they would if they regularly broke team rules.
In an interview, Taylor said that would not happen and, he added, Klieman reiterated as much to the players and a few anxious parents the next day. But Taylor said he wanted to get the players’ attention.
“I, at the end of the conversation, was just asking them please, please, please, please be careful,” Taylor said. “You have to understand how serious this can be and how it can get through the entire team. I was almost begging them. Sometimes players need to hear a little stronger language than others. There were just a few that needed to have a wake-up call. I think that wake up call is very real now.”
In Riley County, where the school is, half of the diagnosed coronavirus cases (78 of 156 as of Wednesday) were among the college-age population, ages 18-24. Public health officials rely on a grading metric that tracks movement within the county, comparing it to pre-pandemic levels. Earlier during the outbreak, Riley County received an A for social distancing. Now it rates as an F.
“At that point, we were staying home more, only going out for essentials, so our movement was low,” Julie Gibbs, the Riley County Health Director, said of the change in an email. “With businesses opening up, we expected to see more movement, but I did not expect to see our grade drop quite that much. We need to get back to where we were before.”
The bump in infections among college-age adults, she added, is because too many are going to clubs and bars, and not wearing masks or keeping the prescribed 6 feet away from others. The outbreak at LSU came in large part from players going to a popular bar when they arrived back in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, according to Sports Illustrated.
Some schools have tried to insulate themselves from liability by requiring athletes returning to campuses for workouts to sign waivers acknowledging the risk of being infected — or in the case of at least one school, Southern Methodist, releasing it from any liability. (Kansas State did not have a waiver, but provided its protocols to players and their parents and asked for feedback.)
The waivers have caught the attention of lawmakers.
On Wednesday, Sens. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Cory Booker of New Jersey urged NCAA President Mark Emmert to prohibit such waivers, calling them “legally dubious” and “morally repugnant.”
Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Emory University, said if players were getting sick after returning to school — for the sole purpose of training for football, not going to class — it was almost immaterial whether they became infected while lifting weights or at a local watering hole.
“They got exposed because you — the athletic department — brought them back to campus,” Binney said. “They were only at the bar because you told them to come back. Getting sick is a perfectly foreseeable consequence of calling students back to campus.”
Taylor, the Kansas State athletic director, said it was “a fair question” to ask why schools have their athletes back on campus now, preparing for a season whose shape and scope will surely be altered by the pandemic. But he said the summer workouts, which are deemed voluntary, help prevent some injuries once practice begins and allow players to make progress toward their degrees by picking up summer school credits.
For now, Kansas State football players have been asked to shelter in place for two weeks before they are retested.
The only ones who are required to stay are the 14 who have tested positive, Taylor said. Many of the infected were already living together in houses or apartments, so they can stay put. Several who live with players who did not test positive have moved into dorms by themselves.
Taylor said that workers in protective gear are delivering two meals per day, along with groceries, to the infected players.
The outbreak prompted Kansas State to also push back the date for opening workouts for its other fall teams, cross-country and women’s volleyball, which had already returned to campus to quarantine for one week before they were scheduled to be tested on Wednesday. They will instead be tested on July 1 and begin practicing no earlier than July 5.
Football players, once they test negative between July 6-9, could resume workouts as early as July 13. At the moment, that seems far away.
The season-opening game, scheduled for Sept. 5 against visiting Buffalo, is a distant speck on the horizon in the Little Apple. There, and on many other campuses, excitement for the looming season has been diminished by uncertainty — and so many questions.
“There’s been several people talking about the bumpy road,” Taylor said. “There’s going to be schools that aren’t going to be able to play. And I think we have to have other things in place. My question now is, the test we do is expensive and invasive — can we test more often?”
He continued: “I am optimistic that we’ll play football. I’m not optimistic that we’ll play 12 games.”
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