When Jackie Hamilton thinks about the upcoming college football season and her son – Kyle Hamilton, a sophomore defensive back at Notre Dame – her routine concerns about the safety of the sport are joined by a new fear: COVID-19.
Notre Dame plans to test all players every week for 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?”
Hamilton is one of thousands of parents of college football players across the country grappling with unanswered questions about coronavirus this month as their sons returned to campuses for socially distanced workouts. And like other parents who spoke in phone interviews this week, Hamilton focused her criticism on the hands-off approach of the NCAA, which she and other parents blame for a balkanized, disjointed approach to the crisis across the sport that, in a way, parallels the federal government’s handling of the pandemic.
Some schools are testing every player every week. Some schools aren’t testing unless players develop symptoms. And some schools are requiring players to sign waivers, raising concerns among parents of hospital bills and legal liability in the event their sons develop severe COVID-19 symptoms.
“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?”
NCAA President Mark Emmert declined an interview request this week. In an email, NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn directed a reporter to the association’s coronavirus web page, where it is publishing recommended – but not required – guidelines.
“Individual schools must make decisions in concert with applicable guidance from local and state public officials with regard to return to campus, return to practice, and return to competition,” Osburn wrote.
Two doctors on the NCAA’s covid-19 advisory panel, in phone interviews, said they have been told the association doesn’t have the authority to require schools to implement policies.
“I’m not a big college sports aficionado, so this governance stuff is outside of my purview,” said Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. “But generally, yes … you should want to make sure that teams are following the same types of rules … so that you don’t have a disproportionate risk on one side.”
To Chris and Mya Hinton, that dichotomy – yes, schools should all have the same policies but no, the NCAA can’t make that happen – isn’t satisfying. Last month, the Hintons – whose sons Christopher and Myles play at Michigan and Stanford, respectively – started College Football Parents 24/7, an advocacy group with aspirations of influencing coronavirus safety policies in the sport.
In less than a month, nearly 900 parents from across the country have joined the group’s Facebook page, where they share concerns and questions about policies and issues unfolding at different schools. Perhaps the most common complaint, parents said, is the NCAA not mandating a level playing field on safety policies such as testing.
“We’ve been doing all the right things at home when the boys were here,” said Chris Hinton, a retired NFL offensive tackle who played 13 years in the league, mostly with the Indianapolis Colts. “And then to release them, under someone else’s supervision, we’re just concerned going forward that it looks like everyone isn’t on the same page.”
Mya Hinton, a retired lawyer, expressed concern college athletic departments are prioritizing their financial well-being over the health and safety of football players by barreling forward with their normal schedule in the middle of a pandemic.
“The reality is, the whole reason we’re having this conversation is money. These football programs, especially in the Power Five [conferences], fund the majority of the other sports, and the majority of everyone’s salaries,” Mya Hinton said. “There’s a ton of money involved here, and that’s not a secret.”
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The Hintons met at Northwestern, where Chris was an all-American offensive tackle and Mya played basketball. In the 1983 NFL draft, Chris was taken fourth overall by the Denver Broncos, and then became a part of one of the most famous trades in football history when he was dealt to the Baltimore Colts for future Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway.
In 13 seasons with the Colts, Atlanta Falcons, and Minnesota Vikings, Hinton was named to seven Pro Bowls and five All-Pro teams, but often noted in interviews, with a good-natured tone, that he was aware his accomplishments on the field would always be overshadowed by once being traded for one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the game.
After Chris retired, the Hintons settled outside Atlanta and opened two wine stores, which they ran for 20 years before selling earlier this year.
“Now we have a lot of time on our hands,” Chris Hinton said. “So we’re basically the NCAA’s worst nightmare.”
The Hintons’ concerns began in late May, as it became clear schools were moving forward with workouts in June without universal coronavirus safety policies.
After a team Zoom call with Michigan football officials – where Coach Jim Harbaugh and several doctors and trainers explained their policies – the Hintons felt safe allowing Christopher Jr., a sophomore defensive lineman, to go back to campus. Michigan tested all players when they returned, and is discussing plans to test random batches of players weekly when they begin full-contact practice in August.
Stanford has yet to allow players back to campus for workouts, so Myles – the Hintons’ younger son, an offensive lineman who is an incoming freshman – is still living with them outside Atlanta.
“We feel like Stanford and Michigan are doing a good job,” Chris Hinton said. “But being the skinniest elephant at the circus doesn’t make you skinny.”
Soon after the Hintons started College Football Parents 24/7, the parent of a player at East Carolina raised concerns about a legal waiver her son had been asked to sign. The Hintons declined to connect a reporter with this parent, out of concern the son would face repercussions.
In response to an email inquiry, East Carolina athletic spokesman Tom McClellan confirmed the school had asked players to sign a waiver before returning to campus for workouts this month.
The waiver, provided to The Washington Post after an open records request, asks students to acknowledge they are aware of the risks of contracting COVID-19 and are playing football for East Carolina voluntarily.
It also requires students to waive “ECU, its Athletic Department, its employees, trustees, officers and agents from and against all claims, liability, rights, causes of action, costs, attorney’s fees and expenses of any nature whatsoever, whether known or unknown, for any injury, loss, or damage, due to contracting the COVID-19 virus.”
“Philosophically, similar to what we’ve done annually for concussions, catastrophic risk,” McClellan explained in an email.
Football players returning to Southern Methodist University and to Ohio State this month have been greeted with requests to sign similar documents. SMU’s waiver reads similarly to the one circulated at East Carolina.
“Our intent in providing the document is to confirm that our student-athletes acknowledge that there is risk associated with coexisting with a pandemic, particularly since they will be operating under our protocols for only a short period of time each day,” SMU Athletic Director Rick Hart said in a statement.
Ohio State’s document, unlike the others, does not include language releasing the school from liability.
Ohio State athletic spokesman Jerry Emig, in an email, said his school’s COVID-19 document was a pledge – not a waiver – and “is not being looked at as a legal document.”
“It is an acknowledgment by our student-athletes of their responsibility to keep themselves, fellow students and the Ohio State community safe during this crisis,” Emig wrote.
Mya Hinton, who graduated from Notre Dame Law School and worked for several years in local prosecutor offices in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Atlanta, expressed skepticism at Emig’s claim.
“Whether you phrase it as a pledge or a waiver, it’s a waiver … whether it’ll hold up in court is another matter,” Mya Hinton said. “It’s not right … how do you force student athletes to sign away legal rights in a situation where you’re basically forcing them to come back and play?”
In interviews and emails this month discussion coronavirus safety policies, spokespeople for several athletic departments have emphasized these workouts are voluntary. While technically true, according to the Hintons and other parents, this ignores the pressure their sons feel to participate, as missing workouts could mean upsetting coaches and falling behind in competition for playing time.
“As parents, that’s why it’s important that we have a voice,” Mya Hinton said. “You’re not going to have an 18- or 19-year-old kid speak honestly, for fear of repercussions.”
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On June 10, the Hintons sent an email to every athletic director and president at a Division I school, as well as to the NCAA, outlining their concerns.
“Why is it when it comes to transfer rules, profiting from name image and likeness, or eligibility requirements the NCAA can find a ‘size 7’ that every school can comfortably fit, but comprehensive safety guidance for COVID-19 is delegated to the individual schools?” the Hintons wrote. They requested the creation of a parent advisory committee that would have input on safety policies with the NCAA, as well as with each of the football conferences.
Nine days later, the Hintons received a letter from Emmert. Initially, they were excited the NCAA chief had responded. Until they read the letter.
“It didn’t really address anything we asked for,” Chris Hinton said. “I thought it was pretty generic and somewhat dismissive.”
“As a parent, I empathize with you on the importance of knowing more about the environments your sons could be going back to,” Emmert wrote. “Our role is to provide guidance. … State and local protocols around COVID-19 vary based on each school’s location. … As such, it is the responsibility of each campus to do all they can to support and preserve the health of student-athletes.”
Emmert avoided the request for a parent committee, while noting the NCAA has student advisory committees.
“It is our clear expectation that member schools are doing the right thing for students and making the best decisions they can to preserve their health. Thank you again for writing,” Emmert concluded.
Two doctors consulting with the NCAA on the COVID-19 crisis, in phone interviews, said they’ve been told that the association’s enforcement powers are limited to competitive play issues such as recruiting and practice time, and that it can’t legally mandate policies such as weekly coronavirus testing at schools.
“The NCAA doesn’t impose. It can only recommend,” said William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
The NCAA occasionally has taken a more expansive view of its oversight powers – most notably when levying severe punishments against Penn State in 2012 over the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case; penalties the association eventually reduced after years of litigation – but it historically has delegated health and safety issues to individual schools, according to Tim Nevius, a former NCAA investigator who now works as an attorney representing college athletes.
But, Nevius noted, the NCAA is governed by a board of university presidents empowered with bylaws that allow for emergency actions. If the NCAA’s board wanted to mandate universal coronavirus safety policies, Nevius believes, it could.
“This is an extreme situation in which central leadership, I think, would be very valuable for protecting the health and safety of the athletes,” Nevius said.
Doctors advising the NCAA said there are legitimate reasons why universal policies such as weekly testing could be challenging. Coronavirus tests are expensive, ranging from $40 to $240 each, so testing all athletes and staff weekly in the fall, which could cost millions, may not be affordable for Division II and III schools, and even among some smaller Division I schools.
“The top divisions have much more resources,” Schaffner said. “If you don’t have a lot of money, your program is going to be less elaborate.”
But even with all the money flowing through wealthiest programs, the testing and safety protocols under discussion in college football are not as aggressive as those proposed and under discussion for the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball. On testing, those leagues are discussing daily, or every other day, while the most rigorous plans in college call for weekly tests.
Nevius, the former NCAA investigator, noted one major difference between college and pro sports: the athletes in professional sports have unions.
“Virtually every conversation I have about college sports, anywhere, boils down to this: The athletes have no voice or representation,” Nevius said, “And they’re the ones taking all the risks.”
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