When the University of Idaho tested fall sport athletes in July, nine out of 125, mostly football players, came up positive for coronavirus.
Now, a Vandals football season already shrouded in uncertainty is facing more turmoil.
A report from @Stadium circulating Tuesday on Twitter claims that three-quarters of the UI football team doesn’t want to play this fall, because of concerns about contracting COVID-19. The NCAA Board of Governors met Tuesday and postponed until Wednesday a decision whether to abandon attempts to conduct fall sport championships, including in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision, of which Idaho is a member.
Pending the board’s decision, the Big Sky Conference, which includes the Vandals, “will review options for competition this fall for member institutions’ intercollegiate athletic teams,” according to a statement from the conference.
Vandals head football coach Paul Petrino and athletics director Terry Gawlik did not directly address the @Stadium report, but in lengthy statements alluded to it discussing the state of the UI team.
Petrino said: “We stand behind our student-athletes and fully support their right to speak out. I also have shared with our players that I am available to listen and discuss options at any time if they have concerns about returning to play in the current environment. Our athletic training staff continues to do an excellent job of adapting and implementing new practices to help our student-athletes and staff reintegrate as safely as possible. Our focus has been and will remain on keeping the health, safety and well-being of our student- athletes a top priority.
“Today we gathered as a team to discuss the parameters of the fall season, as well as the safety protocols that exist in our facility and on campus. I really appreciated the opportunity to collaboratively discuss the dynamic and difficult decisions that are being made throughout the country on these issues. We will continue to communicate with our team and seek their feedback as we work together to get through these unprecedented times.”
Gawlik said she told student-athletes “if they don’t feel comfortable, they need to tell somebody. They need to discuss with their trainers, with me, with their coach or whomever. We will take care of them. We are not going to remove anyone’s athletic aid because of their individual concerns. We just need to know.”
The UI football team held a players-only virtual meeting last week, according to an athletics department statement. Following it, “the team remains consistent in their messaging that the current goal is to prepare for the 2020 season,” according to the statement.
Idaho has already lost two nonconference games from its football schedule. The Vandals planned to open at home Sept. 5 against Western Oregon of the Great Northwest Athletic Conference, but the GNAC canceled fall sports. Idaho’s game against Washington State on Sept. 19 was lost when the Pac-12 Conference contracted to a members-only schedule for 2020.
Idaho’s football team is scheduled to open preseason camp Friday.
According to the university, the nine athletes who tested positive for COVID-19 self-isolated during the course of their illness, and 15 additional student-athletes who came in contact with them self- quarantined to ensure they did not become ill and also spread the virus.
Those numbers might not be large enough to be a representative sample. But if they are at all predictive, they suggest the UI and Moscow could see hundreds of new cases of COVID-19 as thousands of students return to campus when the university opens for the fall semester later this month.
Nonetheless, such a scenario could still fall within the UI’s ability to manage a COVID-19 outbreak, according to university spokesman Jodi Walker.
Idaho plans to test everyone at the beginning of the semester and regularly throughout the fall. It has established its own laboratory to be able to turn around test results in 24 to 48 hours. Thermal testing of people in high-traffic buildings and the use of masks and social distancing are part of the regimen, and between its capacity to quarantine on campus students who tested positive and the ability of Moscow’s Gritman Medical Center to treat people seriously ill, “we are cautious but optimistic” about being able to offer a fall semester with instruction on campus and residential living for students, she said.
Also, the positive tests among fall sport athletes are only one data point the UI is using to gauge its ability to open. The university has hired a COVID project manager, and is working with a medical doctor, “ doing our own modeling and testing,” Walker said.
“We are using a lot of methods. Athletics is not the prime indicator.”
Furthermore, nine positive cases among 125 athletes is a manageable number and does not threaten the university’s ability to offer fall sports.
“Absolutely,” Walker said.
UI President Scott Green also held a town hall meeting for UI employees Tuesday, addressing their issues surrounding opening the campus.
But Moscow Mayor Bill Lambert knows the limits of such planning. Moscow hosted youth soccer and baseball tournaments last weekend that brought more than 100 teams to town. Spectators were instructed to practice social distancing and to observe Moscow’s mandatory mask ordinance. However, Lambert canceled both tournaments Sunday morning when the majority of participants declined to follow those rules.
“It just was untenable,” he said. Soccer tournament officials, especially, had good intentions to abide by them, said Lambert. “They had a good plan in place. It just didn’t work out.”
While the city waits to see the impact of those tournaments on the number of COVID -19 cases in Moscow, Lambert says keeping the virus in check “is like trying to control a flood.”
He wonders if UI officials will confront similar challenges as they open campus and begin fall sports seasons.
“Nobody likes sports better than Bill Lambert,” he said. “But this is a different paradigm. I think they have a good plan. They are trying their best. But I don’t know how it is going to turn out for them.”