Mountain West Conference presidents made a widely unpopular decision in August to postpone the fall football season, sacrificing hefty revenue streams at a dozen universities for the sake of student athletes’ health.
As a long-time football fan, I was disappointed about not seeing a talented University of Wyoming Cowboys team play, but impressed that the decision was made for all the right reasons during the coronavirus pandemic.
New UW President Ed Seidel admitted the choice was one all MWC leaders agonized over in a candid interview with the Casper Star-Tribune.
“[COVID-19 is] at a completely unacceptable level in the United States,” Seidel said. “We didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the lives or the livelihood of any of the students, the fans, the community members and so on.”
Seidel pointed to studies that “showed quite definitely that there was heart damage, in fact, for young adults who were in the age group of the athletes.”
It was a profile in courage by university administrators, but it didn’t stick. Six weeks later, the MWC reversed course and announced it would play an eight-game conference schedule starting Oct. 24.
When UW plays its first home game against Hawaii on Oct. 30, 7,000 spectators — about one-quarter of capacity — will be allowed at War Memorial Stadium. While I’m mostly worried about the risks to athletes on the field, I hope UW strictly enforces the school’s face-covering social-distancing policies in the stands.
Nothing has changed about the amount of risk COVID-19 poses to the football players. The disease is not only still at “a completely unacceptable level,” it is, in fact, getting worse. So what happened?
Three of the “Power Five” conferences — the Southeastern Conference, Big-12 and Atlantic Coast Conference — decided to play, that’s what. The moves set the stage for the MWC and others to see how things went in the initial weeks and perhaps change their minds.
It’s not difficult to imagine that the new six-year, $270 million contract that the MWC signed in January with CBS and Fox Sports to broadcast football and basketball games was a major factor in the conference’s decision to have a football season. Watching other schools reap the monetary, publicity and recruiting benefits of TV coverage must have been a bitter pill for some MWC-member boards of trustees and athletic departments to swallow.
And let’s not forget about the wealthy donors whom Seidel told the Star-Tribune were reconsidering their contributions to UW when the football season was temporarily on the line for health reasons. How fiscally fickle can you get?
Many conferences decided not to put teams on the field this year. But lo and behold, the MWC, citing confidence in new testing procedures, suddenly plunged full speed ahead. Quest Diagnostics will provide three rapid antigen tests each week for all football players, coaches and trainers.
But testing isn’t a panacea. “You can’t test your way out of a pandemic,” Shane Speights, dean of the NYIT medical school at Arkansas State, told Sports Illustrated. “These tests aren’t 100%. We hang our hat on just the test results. It’s putting all your eggs in one basket.”
There’s nothing to guarantee that UW’s conference won’t pause or even prematurely end its abridged season. Thirty-three NCAA football games have already been either postponed or cancelled. Two high-profile teams, Florida and Vanderbilt, had a combined 60 players out for virus-related reasons on Oct. 17.
Earlier this month, 11 freshmen on UW’s football squad tested positive for COVID-19. All 31 freshmen players were quarantined and didn’t engage in any athletic activities for a week, a measure the program hoped would keep the rest of the team from getting sick.
Since the MWC’s decision reviving football, Wyoming is one of many western states where coronavirus cases are spiking. By Sunday evening, active cases statewide climbed to 2,341. Albany County, home to UW, had the most active cases in the state at 392.
Last week the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper declared it was on “Code Orange” status, which is one step below a full-blown disaster. The facility opened a COVID-19 surge unit and was diverting patients from outside Natrona County to other hospitals unless they were suffering heart attacks, strokes or traumatic injuries.
“This is not going to go away for the next several months,” Dr. Mark Dowell, Natrona County health officer, told reporters. “I think it’s going to get a lot worse.”
Against this backdrop of severe health consequences statewide, does it really make sense for UW to squeeze in a few football games? The university, like many throughout the country, is having a difficult enough time convincing students to get tested for COVID-19 twice a week if they visit the campus.
Protecting public health is what should be driving policy decisions in Wyoming, including whether the state’s only four-year public university plays football.
UW’s Seidel and the other MWC presidents have been rapped by some football program boosters for prioritizing the health and safety of their students — students who, in the case of football players, also double as unpaid revenue generators.
Dr. Matthew Martinez, director of sports cardiology for Atlantic Health System, told ESPN that he has received calls from major college football programs describing more than a dozen athletes with heart injuries from myocarditis. It’s a situation the American Heart Association is closely monitoring.
In addition to heart conditions, the Mayo Clinic warns that the virus can damage the lungs and brain. COVID-19 can also weaken blood vessels, which contributes to potentially long-lasting liver and kidney problems.
The MWC presidents’ original decision didn’t cancel the football season, only postponed it until spring, when we’ll know more about the disease, and potentially even have a viable vaccine. I think conference leaders got it right the first time, before economic concerns and angry donors likely made them reconsider to keep the peace.
If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that we should proceed with caution. The stakes are literally life and death for many who are infected by COVID-19. Doing our best to make sure student athletes have healthy bodies long after they leave the college gridiron should be the primary concern of all college administrators, coaches, football fans and the student cheering section.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect the correct date of Wyoming’s first scheduled home game. -ED.