Amid coronavirus threat, colleges take aim at football culture of hiding injuries, illness

By Paul Myerberg / USA TODAY

Posted Jun 27, 2020 at 8:01 PM

For months, college football programs in the Bowl Subdivision have discussed behaviors that may stem any outbreaks of the coronavirus, such as distancing and disinfection. Scattered during the spring as a result of the pandemic, coaches and players — joined at times by parents and guardians — would gather virtually to review medical guidelines and best practices, with some meetings involving university doctors and medical professionals.

These discussions have continued in June as athletes resume on-campus workouts. Players at San Diego State, for example, have been given daily wellness questionnaires. Programs such as Wisconsin, Oregon and Iowa, among many others, have outlined plans for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing with the assistance of local health officials.

“We’ve tried not to be Big Brother in any way, but we keep talking every day about washing your hands, social distancing,” said San Diego State coach Brady Hoke.

While nuts-and-bolts health and safety remains the paramount concern, the resumption of in-person team activities has athletics departments stressing openness and accountability when it comes to sharing symptoms of the coronavirus, with some going so far as to require athletes to endorse documents detailing mandatory preventative steps or risk being barred from team activities.

“It’s a major encouragement,” said Pittsburgh athletics director Heather Lyke. Pittsburgh’s athletics department has created a program designed to make sure coaches and athletes are “accountable for each other’s health.”

“Just anything that you feel, you have to let us know,” Lyke said. “Just kind of create an open door. I think it’s just a constant reminder of the importance of, we’re all in this together. And we all have to be accountable. And if you’re not feeling well, you’re going to infect others. Which obviously has a huge impact because of the number of people that you’ve been around.”

In preaching the need for this open dialogue, athletics departments are taking aim at the underlying culture of football, where injuries are often undisclosed, underreported or ignored due to an ethos that can value toughness and sacrifice.

A study conducted by Harvard and Boston University researchers in 2013 found that Championship Subdivision players reported having six suspected concussions for every diagnosed concussion, indicating that players could choose to play through an injury despite the inherent risks.

In a survey conducted last summer, about 19% of college trainers said that a coach opted to play an athlete who had been deemed “medically out of participation,” according to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association.

 “The days of the, you know, dictator-like head football coach, I think those days are numbered,” said SMU coach Sonny Dykes. “Your program has to be player-friendly. They need to be able to communicate with you and share their concerns, whether it’s concussions, whether it’s COVID, whether it’s social justice. You need to listen and do what’s best for the young people.

“That’s the role of the head coach: to create a culture where they’re comfortable sharing those things with you and they don’t worry about retaliation or something silly like that.”

When teams were separated during the spring, many coaches used Twitter to promote the use of masks and distancing as preventive tools — Nick Saban even filmed a public service announcement in which he scolded Alabama’s mascot for not using a mask.

Since the renewal of team activities, coaches have tried to model this behavior by wearing protective gear inside facilities and taking tests for COVID-19, while leaning on guidelines suggested by the Centers for Disease Control to properly space out players using weight rooms in advance of the start of practice next month.

“I think the big thing is just modeling,” Dykes said. “It starts with me and carries over to our coaches and then to our players. And obviously, I take this very seriously.”

In some cases, athletics departments have asked players to sign pledges before resuming activities. While not considered legal documents, these waivers have raised concerns over student rights at a time when issues such as name, image and likeness have become part of the national debate.

Some athletes “are being served letters, sometimes being written in conjunction with university lawyers, that may take away rights and limit their freedoms,” said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association.

Ohio State issued to players and parents the “Buckeye Pledge,” which asked that players accept that “I may be exposed to COVID-19 and other infections.” In addition to agreeing to coronavirus testing and preventative measures such as wearing a mask and social distancing, signing the pledge required players to monitor for symptoms and report any instances of possible exposure.

According to the pledge, “failure to comply ... may lead to immediate removal of athletic participation privileges” and the ability to use the university’s training facilities but would not threaten an athletic scholarship.

As part of its plan for resuming team activities, Indiana required athletes sign an “expectations and commitment” pledge “that outlines the expectations to practice personal hygiene, physical distancing, non-contact with others if symptomatic and the agreement to self-quarantine” if necessary.

The first item on the pledge asks that athletes “timely report any exposures to COVID-19 to the Sports Medicine Staff.” In the case of any symptoms, an athlete is directed to contact an athletic trainer and “follow his or her instruction, including being tested for COVID-19 and self-quarantining while the test results are pending.” (Indiana announced on Tuesday that it had tested 187 athletes, coaches and staff members without a positive result.)

In lieu of pledges or waivers, programs such as San Diego State are simply emphasizing and promoting that players “be honest on how you feel,” Hoke said. Boston College, which received players back on campus this week, issued coronavirus-related manuals to athletes and families and required a quarantine period of at least eight days for returning athletes.

“The one thing I told the team, I think we’re being very proactive rather than reactive,” said Boston College coach Jeff Hafley. “As you’ve seen, you can be asymptomatic and still have it. We’re doing everything we can to minimize those risks.

“But we all have to be encouraged now because we’re here and we’re back.”

Yet college football’s return has yielded a run of unnerving COVID-19 cases. At least 30 players at LSU have been quarantined after testing positive for COVID-19 or coming into contact with someone who had. Thirteen players at Texas tested positive or were presumed positive for COVID-19, while 10 more were asymptomatic and placed in self-quarantine after contact tracing, the school announced June 18.

While the larger outbreaks draw national attention, just one positive test, if unmentioned and then untreated, has the potential to wreak havoc on a locker room and derail the upcoming season.

“We want to play football,” Hoke said. “These guys want to play football. They want to have a season. So we need to do everything we can do as a team and as coaches to help them navigate the challenge that has been the pandemic.”

Area athletic trainers adjusting role as coronavirus pandemic continues

By Henry Palattella -  [email protected] -  @hellapalattella on Twitter

Jun 23, 2020 Updated Jun 23, 2020

Area athletic trainers adjusting role as coronavirus pandemic continues | Sports |

In her 27 years of being an athletic trainer, Elyria High School athletic trainer Ann Hamker has never dealt with anything like this.

Prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic turning the world upside down in March, Hamker’s main job was dealing with concussions, bruises and breaks. Now, as she gradually begins to return to Elyria, she’s trying to figure out how she can help limit the spread of the coronavirus while also focusing on her normal responsibilities.

"Our training procedures aren’t going to change because we're already cleaning consistently since kids come in sweaty and dirty,” Hamker said. “We’ll have to wear our masks consistently. The rotation of getting kids on and off the field and to practice is going to have to be drawn out a little bit. When it comes down to training, we’re just going to space the kids out when we're handling things pregame."

As area high schools begin to move into Phase 2 of practice and are allowed to have contact, Hamker and other area athletic trainers are quickly trying to adjust to the new normal of high school athletics. For Hamker, that means wearing a mask and taking social distancing guidelines into account.

“I’ll probably have some really goofy tan lines at the start of the season because of the mask,” she said with a laugh. “We wear gloves and could maybe end up wearing some protective eye equipment, but aside from that, there won’t be a ton of changes because we already run a tight ship.”

For the past three months, Avon Lake's Matt Yonkof and Columbia's Adam Binggeli were taken out of their roles as athletic trainers and repurposed at local hospitals, with Yonkof working at various Cleveland Clinic hospitals while Binggeli assisted at Southwest General.

While on assignment there, they helped in roles ranging from taking the temperatures of patients and workers to assisting in patients’ rehab.

“Over the past couple weeks, we’ve been slowly filtering ourselves back into the schools and trying to get our training rooms set up for the social distancing guidelines that we’re going to have to work with once we get back,” Yonkof said.

If there’s one thing that’s going to change for athletic trainers, it’s how they operate their training room. Normally a school’s training room is filled to the brim with athletes getting treatment, rehabbing or just hanging out with their friends. Under the new social distancing guidelines, that’s no more.

"I have a little bit of a smaller training room so I could be working with two athletes in the room and it’s suddenly packed,” Binggeli said. “In terms of everyday practice and rehab or stretching out, I’m probably going to have kids spread out in the hallway.”

The change in training-room procedure will be especially evident at the end of the school day, as most training rooms quickly fill up with kids looking to get work in before that afternoon’s practice or game. Because of this, Hamker is considering having athletes sign up for specific training times to prevent a sudden influx of athletes descending upon the training room.

“We’re really going to have to schedule it so we can space the kids out enough," Hamker said. "It’s going to be a little difficult for some coaches to accept that some kids are going to be a little bit later to practice because we’re going to have to spread everything out for distancing.”

While this complicates things for the athlete and trainer, Yonkof thinks it could end up being a benefit in some ways.

“(Limiting the amount of people in the training room) could let us give the athletes a lot of one-on-one care that we might not have been able to do prior to the pandemic,” he said.

Once athletic trainers are back at their schools, they could end up being very busy right away. With no spring sports or training, coaches and athletes are trying to catch up, which, in turn, could potentially lead to an uptick in overuse injuries.

“I am fretting all the pulled hamstrings and strains I’m going to see,” Hamker said. “Just driving through town, I’ve seen some kids running and playing basketball so I know that some of them have been trying to keep in shape and I know that most coaches encouraged their athletes to work over the quarantine, but this year we’re going to have some conditioning-related injuries. I’m estimating that this fall our acute injuries will go up in numbers.”

While Hamker has some reservations about other fall sports, the unrivaled physicality of football puts it on a different level of concern in her mind.

“I’m really concerned for football because it’s a collision sport — it’s not just a contact sport,” she said. "When these kids collide, they share sweat. They play hard — it’s all a part of human nature. Sometimes kids get cut. Those kids have to touch each other every play and sometimes manhandle each other. The contact sports concern me as well, but football is just on a different level.”

Through his work at Southwest General, Binggeli was able to spend time with some other area athletic trainers, which he says helped him develop his plan for how he’ll operate once he returns.

“The good thing about working at the hospital is that I’m consistently talking to the other athletic trainers so we can bounce ideas off each other,” he said. “We’re all on the same page. Everyone’s pretty understanding of what’s going on.

"It’s a different era now. I’m used to shaking everyone’s hands when we come through the door, but that’s not going to be able to happen now. It’s weird. It’s kind of retraining ourselves so we’re able to hit the ground running.”

Even with all the changes, Yonkof’s still counting down the days until the fall sports season.

“I’m currently working a 9-to-5 type of job, and that’s not what I’m used to at all,” he said. "It’s weird working normal hours. I can't wait to get back to working my afternoons with the athletes and spending my nights at the games. There’ll be nothing better than being able to stand on the sideline with the athletes and coaches again.”