The Coronavirus Shows How the NCAA Isn’t Built to Protect Athletes - Patrick Hruby
The Coronavirus Shows How the NCAA Isn’t Built to Protect Athletes

The organization in charge of college sports vigorously governs amateurism. But health and safety is another story.
By Patrick Hruby | Hreal Sports | July 2020
L ast week, Rand Paul said something profoundly stupid. On its own, that wouldn’t necessarily be noteworthy. The Republican Senator from Kentucky says lots of dumb stuff about a great many things.

In the context of a Congressional hearing on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that already has killed nearly 130,000 Americans, however, the idiocy streaming from Paul’s mouth was downright terrifying. When he wasn’t whining that infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci stood in the way of Americans playing baseball, Paul was proclaiming that Friedrich Hayek—a Austrian-born libertarian economist who is very much not an expert on infectious diseases, and also happens to be dead—somehow had the policy prescription for un-fucking the United States out of its worst public health crisis in a generation.

“Hayek had it right!” Paul said. “Only decentralized power and decision-making based on millions of individualized situations can arrive at what risks and behaviors each individual should choose.”

In other words: wear a mask, or don’t. Go to a bar, or don’t. Play baseball, or don’t. Respond to the virus however you want, let everyone else do the same, and let the sum of our decisions be our national strategy. Don’t ask the government to take charge of anti-COVID-19 efforts—or, God forbid, force Americans to, like, mildly inconvenience themselves.

Of course, this is exactly the wrong way to combat communicable diseases, which care a lot less about the philosophical merits of The Road to Serfdom than finding antibody-free hosts. If the coronavirus has taught us anything—beyond the continuing inadvisability of drinking bleach—it’s that pandemics are best managed through collective action coordinated by a central authority. The government makes and enforces sensible safety rules. People trust and follow them. Everybody is not free to feel good, doing whatever they think is best. Adopting that approach is largely why Taiwan is playing baseball and New Zealand is celebrating entire days without any new COVID-19 cases; rejecting it is largely why America’s new case counts are exploding and the National Basketball Association probably would be better off scrapping plans to restart its season in Florida and instead moving to Australia.

Not coincidentally, it also helps explain why the National Collegiate Athletic Association and its member schools are struggling to contain the coronavirus.

Perhaps you’ve heard: College sports are scheduled to resume this fall. So far, the ramp-up isn’t going very well. 

Over the last month, athletes have been returning to otherwise empty campuses for voluntary—ahem—workouts. More than 150 of them have since tested positive for coronavirus, including 23 Clemson University football players. At Louisiana State University, at least 30 football players have been in COVID-19 quarantine; at Kansas State University, the school paused workouts for 14 days after 14 athletes tested positive.

Thankfully, no serious illnesses or hospitalizations have been reported. Still, these initial infections have cast a pall over athletic departments. After all, locker rooms aren’t full. Actual practices haven’t started. Classes, complete with other students, aren’t in session. Precautions are being taken, with toes dipping gently into the sporting water. 

Nevertheless, athletes already are being quarantined—and the virus is far from being under control. So what happens when games resume?

Sheldon Jacobson, a University of Illinois computer science professor whose research has been used to create public health policy and design TSA PreCheck at airports, calculates that between 30 and 50 percent of the approximately 13,000 athletes playing major college football will be infected with coronvirus if the upcoming season takes place—causing as many as seven of those athletes to die. Zach Binney, an Emory University epidemiologist (and previous Hreal Sports Q&A subject), believes that Jacobson’s death projection is too high.

Yet even if no college athletes are killed by COVID-19 in the coming months, other risks remain. The disease can cause serious illness, and leave otherwise young and healthy people—including elite athletes, like 32-year-old Olympic gold medalist swimmer Cameron van der Burgh—suffering from lasting symptoms. Infections among athletes also could help the virus spread to older and more vulnerable individuals on campus, including professors, administrators, and coaches.

Efforts to prevent outbreaks make it highly unlikely that college sports will be able to have what Yahoo’s Pete Thamel calls a “functional season” free of interruptions, cancellations, and scheduling chaos. This is especially true for football, a large-roster, close-contact sport that doesn’t lend itself to social distancing. As Thamel reports:

“I have no idea how we play,” one Power Five [football] coach told Yahoo Sports. “We are cleared to have 10 guys work out at a time with no one within 10 feet of each other and have to clean the whole weight room. And two weeks later, we can line up in a walk (through) 11 on 11?”

Added another Power Five coach: “If it’s contact tracing and lose a guy for 14 days, I don’t know how we’re going to have a football season.”

The third Power Five coach quantified the chances of a 12-game season being executed in the fall without significant cancellations and chaos as “close to zero” percent.

With workout cancellations and quarantines the new normal at places like LSU, Clemson and Texas – and those are just the ones reported – there’s an emerging feeling that this season is headed toward a buzzsaw of medical risk, mass cancellations and eventual financial disaster. “If it’s not working in [professional] golf and tennis, how is it going to work in football?” asked one high-ranking college official.

In a New York Times op-ed, University of Notre Dame president John Jenkins argued that his school can and will keep athletes and other campus community members safe through “aggressive testing, hygiene and careful monitoring.” His optimism is not universal. Pennsylvania State University football coach James Franklin plans to return to State College this fall—but leave his family in Florida because his youngest daughter has an autoimmune disease that makes her more vulnerable to COVID-19. Southern Methodist University and East Carolina University are requiring athletes to sign waivers immunizing the schools and their employees against any legal claims related to the virus. Morehouse College cancelled its football season outright after school president David Thomas determined that the program couldn’t guarantee the safety of its players. South Carolina’s governor has warned that he will not allow college football games to be played in the state this fall if infections keep increasing. The Ivy League may move all of its fall sports to the spring. Some FBS conferences reportedly are talking to banks about opening up lines of credit to make up for lost revenue if more cancellations occur.

Meanwhile, University of Arizona football player Malik Hausman expressed concern over the state’s coronavirus outbreak:

Hausman isn’t alone. On Wednesday, University of Illinois football player Milo Eifler shared similar sentiments:

Following a discussion with the school’s coach and athletic director, Eifler spoke to reporters, reiterating his desire to see college football’s various athletic conferences “work together to make sure every athlete has equal access to safety protocols that protect our health.”

“We’re still at risk,” Eifler said. “We’re not superheroes. I want the NCAA to know that and be more vocal. They have all the power in the world."

But the NCAA isn’t using its power. Instead, the national governing body of college athletics has been hands-off—mirroring the laissez-faire pandemic response that has left the United States as whole failing miserably where many other nations have succeeded.

In a recent and unsparing look at what went wrong, The Atlantic’s James Fallows likens disease control to managing air travel. Modern passenger flights, he explains, are remarkably safe because of strict rules, engaged leadership, and careful coordination. Pilots rely on detailed checklists and contingency plans for every imaginable mishap; air traffic controllers direct movement so planes don’t put each other at greater risk; everyone works together from a common playbook to prevent tragedy. 

Why is being on the same page so important? Here’s Fallows:

From the sky you see only the natural features that separate countries and continents—mountains, water—and not the political demarcation lines. The system that makes flying safe has done so by means of a thoroughgoing, borderless internationalism.

Controllers and flight crews around the world are supposed to be competent in the same spoken language—English—and use the same formulaic instructions that serve as an unambiguous code. For instance: Aviation English prescribes “tree” as the pronunciation for three, in part because the th- sound can be difficult for non-native speakers. Controllers around the world say “Climb and maintain 4,000 feet” rather than “Climb to 4,000 feet,” because to could be misheard as two. Controllers in Paris sequencing a Korean Air plane to land between ones from Lufthansa and Aeromexico at Charles de Gaulle Airport must be sure that all the nationalities involved will follow the same procedures in the same way.

The federal government has a pandemic playbook. It has the ability to lead, internationally and domestically, creating a unified response. Only the Trump administration has chosen to ignore the former and half-ass the latter, effectively leaving states and cities on their own to implement a disjointed pastiche of masking, testing, social distancing, and other public health measures. 

The result of pulling a Hayek? Death, illness, and unchecked viral spread across much of the country. A deteriorating state of affairs that a former government official who spoke to Fallows calls a “catastrophic failure.” 

Back to the NCAA. The organization has issued two sets of coronavirus health and safety guidelines for schools to follow. Which is all well and good. Only those guidelines are mere suggestions—not enforceable rules. The NCAA doesn’t require athletic programs to conduct a certain number of tests at a certain frequency; or to quarantine positive cases for a certain number of days; or to cancel practices and games if a certain percentage of athletes on a team are infected. 

Moreover, nobody from the NCAA’s compliance office is checking to see if schools actually follow the organization’s guidelines and otherwise act responsibly. And nobody will punish them with fines and sanctions if they don’t.

Consequently, school efforts to protect athletes such as Eifler are individualized and scattershot—think pilots and air traffic controllers, speaking a dozen different languages. The Patriot League already has announced special restrictions for the fall football season: athletes won't return to campus until August, and flights to games and overnight stays are forbidden. Other conferences aren’t taking those precautions. The University of Houston suspended workouts after six athletes tested positive for COVID-19; by contrast, schools such as Clemson have allowed workouts to continue despite dozens of positive tests.

Or take testing itself. Because the coronavirus has an incubation period from initial infection to symptom onset that can last as long as 14 days—and also can be transmitted by people who never develop symptoms—medical experts agree that athletes should be tested upon returning to campus, and at least weekly thereafter. Yet according to an analysis conducted by Will Hobson of The Washington Post, the policies and plans of the 65 schools in the Power Five conferences: 

… vary widely from school to school — most of them subject to change — ranging from weekly tests for all players, regardless of symptoms, to no tests for players unless they display symptoms or are discovered to have been near an infected person.

Athletes at different schools in different conferences receiving different levels of protection and care is far from ideal. And once the season starts, it threatens to undo the safety efforts of programs that have managed to shield their athletes from the virus. Jackie Hamilton, the mother of Notre Dame football player Kyle Hamilton, told Hobson that she worries about her son’s safety:

Notre Dame plans to test all players every week for the novel coronavirus, and Hamilton said in a phone interview this week she believes the school is doing everything it can to keep her son safe. But what about Arkansas — Notre Dame’s opponent for its home opener in September — where players are getting tested only if they have symptoms or learn they were near an infected person?

“Do I want my child on the field, tackling some kid who may have it but doesn’t know because he’s asymptomatic?” said Hamilton, a human resources manager from suburban Atlanta. “How is that supposed to work?”

If Hamilton’s son ends up infected, it won’t necessarily be because Notre Dame or any of its opponents did something reckless or unwise. At LSU, for instance, positive coronavirus tests have been traced not to workouts within the school’s facilities, but rather to athletes attending local bars and restaurants.

Still, Hamilton told Hobson that she couldn’t understand why the NCAA isn’t imposing uniform COVID-19 protections, mandating that every school follow a set of best practices.

“It just seems like everyone’s freelancing,” Hamilton said. “The NCAA has rules and guidelines for everything under the sun … how are they not making any rules for this?”

According to NCAA chief medical officer Brain Hainline, his organization hasn’t made COVID-19 rules because it can’t make COVID-19 rules. Not when hundreds of member schools with different budgets and priorities would have to agree on what those rules should be, write them up, and then vote on them, a convoluted process that could take years. And not when medical understanding of the virus is rapidly evolving.

“I’ve been very strongly discouraged … on the idea of coming up with a concrete policy or a concrete testing plan or rule when what we know today is going to be very different than what we know two weeks from now,” Hainline told The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach last week. “They have asked me to give as much guidance as possible with built-in flexibility.”

Hainline isn’t lying. But he isn’t telling the full truth, either. Yes, the NCAA can be a slow-moving bureaucracy. And yes, national safety standards put into place today could very well be obsolete by October. Still, those are reasons to adopt coronavirus rules that can be changed quickly when needed—not to punt on the idea of having rules at all. Especially when lives potentially are at stake.

Moreover, Jackie Hamilton is right. The NCAA and its member institutions are plenty capable of vigorous, top-down governing—at least when it suits them. Case in point? The association’s 400-plus-page rulebook, which devotes nearly 40 pages to amateurism rules that cover everything from when coaches call call high school recruits to limits on the size of housing stipends available to married athletes.

Those rules are policed by the NCAA’s national enforcement staff and by on-campus school compliance officers. No case is too small. In 2013, Yahoo Sports reported that officials at a West Coast Athletic conference school spotted a member of their women’s golf team washing her car with a campus water hose. Concerned that doing so would qualify as an impermissible benefit—the water was not available to all students—they demanded that she reimburse the school $20. The conference later clarified that the car wash was a “non-issue,” but only after the school self-reported a violation.

And the NCAA doesn’t just investigate suspected incidents of athletes getting money and other goodies. It punishes violators with a Torquemada-like zeal—preventing athletes from playing, stripping schools of athletic scholarships, levying postseason bans on entire teams, and often penalizing people whose only offense is being part of a program where past rule-breaking took place. The organization even has something called “Student-Athlete Repayment Plans,” which sound like a way to pay off the purchase of a new Honda or a iPhone, but actually are how the NCAA fines unpaid amateur college athletes for amateurism transgressions like eating too much pasta at graduation banquets by forcing them to make cash donations to charities.

So what gives? Why does the NCAA forcefully insist that schools and athletes adhere to amateurism—or else—while balking at the idea of national coronavirus rules?

College football has a brain injury problem. The NCAA has known about this for more than a century—in fact, the organization’s precursor, the 62-school Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, was founded in the early 1900s in response to a head trauma crisis that saw multiple schools suspend their football programs and Harvard University president Charles Eliot liken the sport to cockfighting.

One of the best ways to prevent and mitigate brain injuries is simple: immediately removed concussed athletes from play, and don’t allow them to return while they still are experiencing symptoms. Again, the NCAA has known this forever. A 1908 study of Harvard football players concluded as much. So did the NCAA’s 1933 medical handbook for member school, a 1937 declaration from the American Football Coaches Association, and a 1968 statement from the NCAA’s Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports. In 1996, the presidents of the American Academy of Neurology, the Brain Injury Association, and the American Association of Neurological Surgeons wrote a letter to then-NCAA executive director Cedric Dempsey stating that concussions were being “overlooked” by unqualified coaches and trainers, and imploring the organization to adopt uniform rules that would prevent injured athletes from returning to play until they were free of symptoms for at least a week and had been examined by a neurologist.

And what has the NCAA done in response to a century’s worth of internal and external red flags?

Almost nothing. Not until 2010 did the NCAA require schools to create concussion management plans that included provisions for removing athletes with suspected concussions from play, barring athletes with diagnosed concussions from returning on the same day, and not allowing those athletes to return to competition before being cleared by a doctor. And not until 2014 did the organization release expanded guidelines recommending that schools implement football practice hitting limits and have independent doctors make return to play decisions.

To this day, these concussion care guidelines remain just that. Suggestions, not rules. When an athlete like University of Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger bounces his head against the ground while being tackled, lies motionless for roughly 30 seconds, returns to play in the same game, and is subsequently sidelined with concussion symptoms, the NCAA does not send health and safety investigators to get to the bottom of what went wrong. Longhorns coach Tom Herman is not required to make any charitable donations. Everybody really is free to feel good.

The same holds true for offseason workouts. Between 2000 and 2016, 26 NCAA football players died as the result of intense exercise—that is, not from violent collisions during games or practices, but rather because they worked out too much, too fast, for too long, under irresponsible direction and without proper medical protections. Basically, they died of idiot CrossFit.

Scott Anderson, a longtime athletic trainer at the University of Oklahoma who has spent two decades studying deaths in college football, insists that workout fatalities are entirely preventable. What’s needed, he says, is a long-overdue cultural shift—away from using sadistic, pain-based workouts to punish players or purportedly instill mental and emotional toughness, what Anderson calls “Junction Boys Syndrome,” and toward scientifically sound exercise plans that build strength, speed, and stamina.

In 2012, Anderson was part of a task force led by athletic trainers and strength coaches—in association with the University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute, a leading organization on heat stroke prevention—that gave the NCAA a list of recommendations to make workouts safer, including mandating safety training for strength coaches and having ice tubs on hand to immediately treat heat strokes. Eight years later, the organization has yet to turn any of those recommendations into rules—and still is deliberating over whether to even adopt them as toothless guidelines. 

Meanwhile, University of Maryland football player Jordan McNair died in 2018 of heatstroke after collapsing during an offseason workout.

From the NCAA’s perspective, guidelines have one major advantage over rules: the latter create responsibility. Which, in turn, creates legal liability, at least when things go wrong and athletes get hurt. Sports injuries can be awfully expensive—you break it, you buy it—and the organization isn’t exactly keen on footing the bills.

Consider the story of Derek Sheely. In 2011, the Frostburg State University football player died from a brain injury suffered during practice, sustaining trauma so severe that doctors asked his parents if he had been in a car accident. Four times over the three days before he collapsed on the field, Sheely had visited the school’s athletic trainer and complained of symptoms, including blood coming from his forehead. He was not checked for a concussion.

Believing their son’s death was preventable, Sheely’s parents sued the NCAA in 2013 for failing to implement concussion rules and investigate the incident. The organization later settled the case for $1.2 million—but not before arguing in court that it had no legal duty to protect college athletes from physical harm. This was nothing new: in the 1950s, the NCAA invented the quasi-legal term “student-athlete” as a liability dodge to avoid paying worker’s compensation to the widow of a college football player who had died from a head injury. 

Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business lobbying groups typically antipathetic to government regulation wrote a letter to the White House pleading for a nationwide standard on when mask-wearing should be mandatory—the better to instill confidence in coronavirus-fearing customers and make it easier for businesses to deny entry to those who will not wear masks or adhere to social-distance guidelines. The NCAA’s Trump-ian abdication of basic health and safety responsibility has left athletes in a similar position to American businesses: fending for themselves, now more than ever. 

Last month, 30 University of California, Los Angeles football players authored a document demanding independent COVID-19 protections as they returned to campus for offseason workouts. Asserting that they did not trust the school to act in their best interest in regard to their health, the players demanded that a “third-party health official” be on hand for all football activities to see that protocols for COVID-19 prevention are being followed; that anonymous whistleblower protections are provided for athletes and staff to report violations; and that each player be allowed make a decision about whether to come back without fear of losing his scholarship or other retaliation.

In a world where the NCAA took its self-proclaimed mission of “safeguarding the well-being” of athletes seriously, UCLA’s players wouldn’t have to make such demands. The NCAA would be the third-party aggressively ensuring that schools are protecting their athletes with rules and leadership that looks more like the system that keep airplanes from crashing than Galt’s Coronavirus Gulch. 

Alas, the people in charge of college sports have other priorities. 

Two days after Rand Paul’s dunderheaded remarks, Congress held another hearing. This one was about college athletes being able to make money from their names, images, and likenesses.

NCAA amateurism rules currently bar athletes from doing so. States including California and Florida recently have passed laws—some going into effect as soon as next summer—that would supersede the NCAA’s prohibition.

In response, the organization has turned both its attention and lobbying muscle toward Capitol Hill, imploring Congress to create a national NIL law. Arguing that having 50 states with their own NIL laws would harm college sports and make managing them unwieldy, the NCAA wants lawmakers to put public power behind its private rules telling athletes what they can and cannot do with their own property—all while providing a federal antitrust exemption to protect the organization from lawsuits.

Hayek, it ain’t.

During the hearing, Nevada Democratic Senator Jacky Rosen pointed out that that the NCAA’s guideline-based response to COVID-19 resembled “what we see playing out in the states,” a patchwork “potentially resulting in spikes and transmissions of the virus in some states and some schools and not in others.” She then asked NCAA Board of Governors chair Michael Drake if his organization planned to develop a national strategy to deal with the virus.

Drake’s answer was noncommittal—befitting a machine built not to protect college athletes, but rather the economic value that can be extracted from them.

“This is under discussion actively on a daily basis, and we will talk about this later on in this week,” he replied. “I certainly support that. But this is a 50-state organization with 1,100 schools, and health policies tend to be guided locally.”

Less than 48 hours later, the University of Kansas suspended workouts for its football players, announcing that 12 of them had tested positive for COVID-19. In a statement, Les Miles, the school’s football coach, said the decision was rooted in “events outside of our control.”