COVID-19 has the potential to gut an NCAA football team. That’s not a projection, it’s a statement of fact.
Air Force Academy has dropped an estimated 40 players from its roster because of the coronavirus, according to a report by The Gazette. The players, most of whom are on defense, didn’t necessarily get sick. Rather, when the Mountain West Conference announced in early August its teams would not play this fall, they took advantage of the school’s “turnback” offer, which allows them to sit out a semester now by tacking it onto the end of their schooling.
Now that the Mountain West has switched its stance and arranged for an eight-game slate starting Oct. 24, those players can’t turn back. The Falcons will have to play thin throughout the 2020-21 season.
The crippling of a team that finished second in the Mountain Division last year might leave Utah State and its conference mates salivating, but they could be in for a similar fate. If their players get spooked about the repercussions of the coronavirus on their health, the health of their loved ones or their season, they, too, have the choice to opt out.
Or they’re supposed to, according to the NCAA. But apparently not everyone, in particular USU coach Gary Andersen, supports that choice.
“At least in our program, we don’t have an opt-out. And it’s not an option,” Andersen said last week during a conference call with reporters. “If you opt out, you’re not with us.”
The NCAA announced in early August that any Division I fall sports athlete with concerns about contracting COVID-19 would be allowed to sit out all or part of the season. It mandated that athletes who choose that option will retain their scholarships, including room, board and books. It also froze eligibility across the board, essentially giving those who compete this fall an extra season.
As of mid-September, more than 150 DI football players had opted out, including at least one player from every Power Five conference. The exact number is hard to pinpoint because players can also opt back in. Some, such as the four players who started for Oregon, don’t want to risk their bodies prior to becoming eligible for the NFL draft. Others, like Auburn linebacker Josh Marsh, are still wrestling with complications after contracting COVID-19 over the summer.
The group from Air Force is not included in that count because those players exercised their school’s turnback option and it is not expected that they can return this semester. Yet in addition to the Falcons, coaches at a handful of teams in the Mountain West, a Group of Five conference, have said they expect to see some of their players sideline themselves. They include at least Colorado State, Fresno State, Hawaii and Wyoming.
“We respect their decision,” Cowboys coach Craig Bohl told Davis Potter of the Casper Star-Tribune last week. “What they articulated to me was a health concern. Everybody sees COVID differently, and so we supported that decision. It’s certainly going to be different for them, and it’s going to be different for us.”
USU’s athletics department said Andersen did not feel comfortable responding to a request to clarify his comments. It confirmed no Aggies have opted out this season.
No players have opted out at the University of Utah or BYU, either. But Utah will carry over scholarships if anyone does take the option, and BYU appears to be open to the idea.
Utes athletic director Mark Harlan said during a late July news conference that Utah’s athletes will be allowed to opt out and retain their scholarships, for whatever reason.
“I think the [Pac-12] conference was the first out of the gate, to make it real clear, across all our sports, that if you did not want to play due to this virus, for whatever reason, whether it’s because you’re affected by it, or if it’s your mental state or whatever it might be, that your scholarship is retained and we march forward with you in good standing and that will absolutely be the case. Our coaches understand that and we plan on doing that. It’s the right thing to do.”
BYU has also publicly been accepting of players choosing not to play because of the virus. At an Aug. 31 press conference, quarterback Zach Wilson said he wouldn’t take issue with it if a teammate chose not to play.
“I would never try and feel like I am putting someone at risk by urging them one way or another as far as that decision,” he said. “I feel like it was never a decision that actually ever came to [a vote] or had to be discussed. I feel like we asked the question one time, if guys that felt like not playing this season would have been an issue [for the team], and not one player stood up and said anything. If someone did [opt out], that’s their own personal decision and that has to do with the ones they live with, their family, their choices and any other conditions that they have. So, we all respect that.”
There’s no shame in opting out, said Dr. John J. Ryan, the director of the University of Utah Pulmonary Hypertension Center and a sports cardiology consultant for the Utes and the Utah Jazz. By participating in a contact sport involving a large number of people, football players put themselves at higher odds of catching the virus. In extreme cases, that could lead to death. A far more likely scenario considering their age group and fitness, however, is that the virus could cause long-term issues with the lungs, kidneys and heart.
Recently, Ryan said, a German study showed that 78 out of 100 patients who had tested positive for COVID-19, including some who were asymptomatic, were found to have heart abnormalities. That includes myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. While that condition can be fatal, the heart can also mostly or entirely heal itself if a person does not partake in strenuous physical activity for several months.
The best approach to making decisions around those risks, Ryan said, is an individualized one.
“I’ve seen several athletes with this question,” he said. “And the approach I take is … you gather the information, you try to distill down the information and then you make recommendations and then you present it to the athlete to try and determine what they feel and what you feel is the best possible path forward.”
The doctor said the NCAA’s opt-out option allows players to make that decision based on their health rather than their financial situations or potential ramifications to their playing status next season.
He added, however, that being on a team does have its advantages.
Football players are tested for the virus at least three times a week, daily in some conferences. So if an athlete tests positive, he is more likely to be removed from action sooner. That could spare additional stress on his organs than if he was left to self-diagnose — especially if he is asymptomatic. Plus players have direct access to medical personnel, so they can get faster treatment if issues arise.
Those are the things Nevada coach Jay Norvell has stressed with his players, though he said he supports the opt-out option.
“Saying [they’re] not playing and turning our kids loose to the general public, I don’t think that’s safer. To be honest, I really don’t,” he said in a July 31 news conference in which he said none of his players have opted out. “In many ways, I think it’s less safe the way the general public is reacting to this whole thing. I’ve been observing our kids the last couple of months, and we’re functioning pretty good right now.”
Perhaps that is Andersen’s thought as well when it comes to the Aggies. The coach said the most frustrating thing about trying to play football during a pandemic is the inconsistency in information and communication. Keeping all his players together may help counter that, or at least help him feel like he has more control over it.
“What today is normal may not be normal tomorrow,” Andersen said. “...But I think it’s made us stronger, I think has kind of brought us together, you know, as a football team. And we’ve got a group of young men that look at this now as an opportunity that they didn’t have, and it’s fun to see that in their eyes.”