Inside Michigan’s thorough plan for athletes to return, and its desire to beat the unknown

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Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel won’t avoid the truth: Nothing about the 2020-21 academic year will be normal.

He understands the risks involved in bringing student-athletes back to campus, as the Wolverines chose to do Monday for football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.

Two Michigan players have already tested positive for the coronavirus. More than 100,000 fans won’t be able to pack the Big House. Athletes and coaches need to adjust their daily routines to take extra precautions.

Again, nothing about this year will be normal.

“And sports will come back to normal at some point,” Manuel said Thursday. “I just don’t have enough information to predict when that will happen, but it will. We will all be able to be in the same room one day in the future.”

In the face of this uncertainty, Manuel laid out U-M’s plan for its student-athletes.

Once U-M players return to campus — after completing a 14-day pre-report assessment at home — they start a six-day resocialization period, which is much more than just checking a few boxes.

During the 14-day assessment, U-M chief health and welfare officer Darryl Conway’s staff will send text messages each morning with a number of questions regarding places of travel, points of contact, possible symptoms, mental health and anxiety checks, sleep habits and appetite trends.

Athletic trainers review the mandatory responses and can intervene if answers concern them. If red flags don’t show up, players can return.


On the first day back, players arrive at University Health Service on campus for two COVID-19 tests — a PCR test to detect the presence of the virus and an antibody test. Manuel isn’t sure how much these tests cost, but the athletic department is getting them from Michigan Medicine.

Days 2 and 3 are considered the shelter-in-place period, where players stay in Ann Arbor and go through many virtual education sessions and put together their history of health report with an athletic trainer.

The fourth day is the pre-participation physical exam with an emphasis on tracking the coronavirus. Each person gets their vitals checked, and “several student-athletes” will be given an EKG before seeing the team physician for clearance.

“Day 4 also starts their return to sport progression, where we’ll do concussion baseline testing, body composition analysis,” Conway said. “Days 5 and 6 are sport-specific fitness testing, sport-specific strength testing and movement analysis, where we’re looking at their flexibility and mobility.”

The seventh day is when players can finally return to voluntary workouts. Based on the information from the six-day resocialization period, Michigan athletics will give each player a customized strength and conditioning program.

It seems like quite the process just to get athletes back on a bench press or squat rack, but these pre-workout protocols align with Manuel’s core values of thorough, careful planning to avoid an utter catastrophe that’s been seen at other universities.

On Thursday, the Texas athletic department announced 13 new football players tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the total to 15 members of the team. Other schools are going through the same issues.

But at Michigan, ending the resocialization period isn’t the finish line; it’s only the beginning.


Whereas some schools aren’t going to continue testing athletes unless symptoms become apparent, U-M plans to do weekly “batch testing” throughout the academic year or as long as it is necessary, head physician Dr. Sami Rifat said.

The reasoning behind those extra tests is to understand how COVID-19 impacts the student-athlete population over a period of time and to check on high-risk sports — like football.

“We formulated our plan while directly consulting with numerous national, international groups to tailor that to our specific needs and resources in Michigan,” Rifat said. “We’ve reviewed and followed guidelines from the NCAA, USOPC (United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee), from the NFL, NBA and other major events.”

Players and staffers have to be screened daily before entering the facilities. They must practice social distancing by wearing masks and spacing out. Locker rooms, strength and conditioning spaces and training rooms will get cleaned with electrostatic sanitation.

Now that football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball players have been cleared to return to campus, the next step is bringing back the remaining fall sports: men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s tennis and volleyball.

When that will be is decided by the effectiveness of the plan set in place, but the university is targeting a July 6 return for those sports.


U-M took its time and pieced together an in-depth return to campus policy that Manuel feels will be successful.

That is, keeping student-athletes healthy, safely competing as scheduled and learning how to bring as much normalcy to a situation filled with unknowns.

“In a different world, a different way of going about work and getting back into the buildings,” Manuel said. “Like we all have, this is our new normal for a while. These Zoom calls, interactions with each other in a different way.

“We’ve all become accustomed to it. I can’t say that I like it, but it is something that’s just different, a different world. We’ve learned to adjust and move forward as we continue to do.”


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