If a UK athlete tests positive for COVID-19, does Florida have a right to know?

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — As of Monday, 106 University of Kentucky football players have gone through the school’s initial screening process for COVID-19 — which includes antibody testing but does not call for COVID-19 tests unless an individual is symptomatic — and been cleared to participate in voluntary workouts.

In less than a month from now, UK’s full squad could be going through more explicit routines for the 2020 season: the NCAA on Wednesday approved an extended six-week practice plan, allowing teams that begin their seasons on Labor Day weekend (as UK does) to start fall camps on July 13.

UK is set to kick off its football season on Sept. 3.

“Return to activity and return to play are two different conversations,” UK Director of Athletics Mitch Barnhart said during a meeting of the school’s Board of Trustees last week. “Return to activity is where we are right now. Make no mistake about it, our goal is to return to competition and return to play.”

Kentucky is reporting any positive case results to the university and local health officials, and on Monday for the first time shared test results with the public as part of its first “return-to-activity” update since voluntary workouts got underway. Of the 106 football players tested, six were positive for COVID-19 antibodies, indicating a past infection. Those individuals were evaluated further and cleared to participate in workouts.

Almost every other SEC school that responded to inquiries from the Herald-Leader — Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt — said it is not not publicly disclosing positive case results for COVID-19, most of them citing privacy concerns.

South Carolina, specifically, in response to inquiries under South Carolina’s Freedom of Information Act has cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) as grounds to not disclose positive case results, suggesting that the limited number of athletes on campus could enable outside parties to identify those who’ve tested positive “either directly or indirectly through linkages with other information.”

Florida was the only other school that responded. A spokesperson said it is regularly sharing updates on positive cases with media, and that as of now it has not had any positive cases as part of its “screen, test and protect program.” Four athletes, all symptomatic, have tested positive at Florida since March and none were part of its return-to-campus initiative.

Alabama has declined to confirm media reports that as many as eight players tested positive for COVID-19, citing privacy concerns. Auburn a few days prior confirmed reports that three of its players tested positive. Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt, who welcomed 91 players back to campus last week, told ESPN that none had tested positive.


Never mind the public — what obligation do SEC member schools have to one another when it comes to the reporting of athletes’ COVID-19 test results, particularly during the 2020-21 school year if play occurs as hoped?

The SEC and its school leaders have intimated repeatedly that they’re planning to begin the football season as scheduled this fall, but no schools with whom the Herald-Leader communicated were able to indicate that there were any plans yet determined about what information — including the disclosure of positive tests — should be shared between teams during their athletics seasons.

The league itself doesn’t know yet, either.

“We don’t have answers to all of those questions right now, and there are some decisions that don’t have to be made right now,” Herb Vincent, the SEC’s associate commissioner for communications, wrote in an email to the Herald-Leader. “I will acknowledge there are many issues to be addressed before the season and we intend to be prepared. There is regular communication between the SEC office and the 14 schools of the SEC on a myriad of topics and we use the best information available to us in making decisions and developing policies when decisions and policies need to be made.”

If teams are to come into contact with one another, it stands to reason that a decision to travel and play would need to be made with information about the overall health status of opposing teams and their locales in mind. Privacy laws should protect individual identities but a litany of general questions — Have any and what number of athletes tested positive in the past week? What about the overall student population at the school? Are athletes who tested positive a week ago still in a 14-day quarantine? What is the general welfare of your campus compared to that of your city? — are bound to be asked of every institution each week, if not daily, as they attempt to host sporting events.

Dr. Shawn Klein, a sports ethics professor at Arizona State University, suggests that conferences and schools — for the sake of competitive balance in addition to player safety — should have accommodations for the sharing of such information in mind as they weigh playing games in the fall.

“Your star wide receiver having a thigh injury that’s going to prevent him from playing, that’s different because if he plays on a bad thigh that’s not necessarily going to affect anybody else’s thighs,” Klein said. “Whereas if he plays and has tested positive and is symptomatic at all and transmits that to another player, that’s a real concern. … In terms of the competitive question, you could go, ‘Well, this team’s got a lot of players that are suspended’ or something like that and there might be concerns about seeing (those suspensions as virus-related). Do we want to play against that team? Do we want to travel to their stadium and to their facility knowing that they have a number of positive cases or haven’t told you that they don’t have a lot of cases?”

College football does not have an “injury report” like the NFL does, but implementing something akin to that could be a way to hold schools accountable to one another. Unlike the NFL, however, college athletes do not have a union collectively bargaining their rights so they, presumably, would have to agree on an individual basis to having their injuries — illnesses included — disclosed formally. So that’s probably not going to happen. And if all the SEC’s athletes were to agree to have their ailments and injuries disclosed between member schools in the interest of public health, those reports could leak to the general public and could result in lawsuits that cash-strapped athletics departments won’t want to face.

During the individual workout period schools have been issued guidelines from the NCAA and SEC but largely have been able to determine their own screening methods, so even in the conference there’s already variation in testing procedures. Auburn, for example, provides specific tests for COVID-19 to returning athletes; Kentucky’s procedure only calls for symptomatic individuals to receive that test. What if Auburn, set to host UK’s football team on Oct. 3, isn’t comfortable with UK’s testing methods and refuses to allow the Wildcats on their campus? After all, football players are part of the regular student body and will mingle with their peers in classes the Monday after each game.

If schools aren’t all on the same page by the time competitions occur, the best it seems they could hope for would be to have as much information about their opponents’ COVID-19 situations as possible before those contests occur. Dr. Lee Kaplan, director of the University of Miami Sports Medicine Institute, during a panel on the return of sports last week, said that for the Hurricanes’ football game at Michigan State, scheduled for Sept. 26, both schools will “know exactly” what each school has done regarding COVID-19. It’s unknown if the sharing of positive case result numbers would be part of what’s shared, but if some schools aren’t even conducting COVID-19 tests, that point might be moot.

It’s also unclear what will be expected of teams and individuals once play resumes, regardless of what information is available to schools involved in competition. Could a UK football player, for example, decide not to travel with the team to Florida in September if the state’s surge in positive COVID-19 cases continues into the fall and concerns him, but not anyone else? Would that be held against him the next week when UK hosts Kent State? What if a player decides to sit out the entire season because of the virus; would his scholarship be in jeopardy entering 2021? If he is a senior and refuses to play due to health concerns, would the NCAA feel pressure to allow him another season of eligibility next year, by which time a vaccine (hopefully) has been manufactured and widely distributed?

Kaplan said athletes at Miami have been assured that their scholarships are safe if they elect to sit, but that’s just one university. He suspects college athletes’ concerns will be heard and met appropriately, as demonstrated by other recent events.

“Because of the social issues going on right now, the college players have a lot of voice, right?” Kaplan said. “They’re getting buildings names’ changed, they’re pulling down statues, so I think that’s great in terms of if they have concerns.”

That supposition could be put to the test shortly: On Friday, the Los Angeles Times reported that 30 football players from UCLA, following a virtual team meeting on Thursday, began calling for a “third-party health official” to be on hand for all football activities because they do not trust head coach Chip Kelly to act in their best interest, based on prior, unspecified incidents they allege were mishandled by the school.

UCLA was set to begin voluntary workouts Monday.

“The decision to return to training amidst a global pandemic has put us, the student-athletes, on the frontlines of a battle that we as a nation have not yet been able to win,” the players wrote in a document reviewed by the newspaper. “We feel that as some of the first members of the community to attempt a return to normalcy, we must have assurances that allow us to make informed decisions and be protected regardless of our decision.”


It’s fair to wonder if anyone should even be in a position of asking these types of questions because of a more overarching one: Is it responsible for colleges to field athletic teams at all amid a pandemic?

They’re “definitely different” than pro sports, said Klein, most obviously in the number of teams involved: just in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision there are almost as many total teams (130) as the total number of MLB, MLS, NBA, NFL and NHL teams combined (149). There are 127 Football Championship Subdivision teams. And that’s just football; the NCAA in the 2019-20 school year boasted more than 460,000 athletes.

Pro sports leagues internationally have adopted “bubble” concepts to play, and the NBA and MLS soon will attempt similar approaches. It’s not realistic for colleges to do the same, though, especially when — again — the athletes involved are students and not employees who have formally agreed to terms with an employer.

“They’re not professionals,” Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel said in a conference call reported by the Washington Post last week. “We won’t get into a situation where we are placing them into a hotel continuously to isolate them from their fellow students and whomever else … If that is the only way that we have to proceed, then we will have to make other decisions.”

Dozens of college football players across the country have tested positive for COVID-19 during the voluntary workout period. Positive tests — whether they’re shared publicly or not — aren’t likely to vanish from the sport in September, and one outbreak within a locker room could have rippling consequences.

“I will be shocked if we think we’re going to get through a college football season without a game being canceled, or a star quarterback or a Heisman Trophy-leading player just not being able to finish the season,” Kaplan said. “Because even if you get quarantined, it’s two weeks. Then you have to test negative. That’s if you don’t have it. If you have it, it could be totally different. So, we’re really only at the beginning of this.”

Financial concerns have been a major talking point and motivator, as athletic departments across the country would stand to lose millions if football isn’t played in the 2020-21 school year. Some schools have already ended non-revenue generating programs to combat expected declines in overall revenue. Kentucky last week approved a budget that calls for a 17% cutback in spending from last year.

Whether football is played or not, and whatever the results end up being, the experience of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have significant ramifications on the landscape of college athletics for years.

It might beg an even bigger “big question”: Are college sports a worthwhile use of resources?

“With these sort of radical changes to the very structure of it all might open up a lot of different avenues for the conferences and schools to rethink how they do it,” Klein said. “There’s gonna be a lot of different experiments, whether they want to keep some of the sports, reshuffle them from a financial point of view and really maybe take a longer look to see if there’s really the gain that we often hear about like, ‘Oh, you need the college sports in order to guide enrollment or help your image.’

“Well, maybe we don’t. Maybe we do. This might give us opportunities to test those theories in an environment where no one actually wants to do it. … I have no predictions on where it ends up, other than there will be a lot of changes.”


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