Texas coach Tom Herman watches his players practice at the Denius Fields in Austin on April 3, 2018. NICK WAGNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Football

Texas keeps voluntary workouts going even as 13 Longhorns test positive for COVID-19

Posted June 18th, 2020

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At the moment, Texas has no plans to stop voluntary football workouts even though 13 Longhorns have tested positive or presumed positive for COVID-19, the school announced.

Two players were already known to have tested positive last week and were in self-isolation. School officials said Thursday that 11 more players tested positive while another 10 are asymptomatic but in self-quarantine due to contact tracing.

In addition, four UT players have tested positive for the COVID-19 antibody, team physician Allen Hardin said in a statement.

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Federal laws prevent UT from disclosing the names of those athletes who tested positive. The athletic department did notify parents about the situation early Thursday before releasing the data to the public, a team spokesman said.

Even though UT has created exhaustive procedures to protect students and staff from the coronavirus, these numbers will be huge red flags for those worried about the upcoming football season.

“The kids are right now, they’re at the facility only for a couple of hours a day,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told the American-Statesman Thursday. “The rest of the time, they’re with friends or they’re out eating and probably going to parties and the like.

“I think that’s probably the biggest challenge we’ll have during the course of the season,” Bowlsby added. “The kind of year that a team has is going to have a lot to do with the level of self-discipline and their ability to always apply best practices.”

Bowlsby said the league’s athletic directors have formed a subcommittee to talk about testing protocols that can be implemented during the season. The league has reached out to various state government and health officials, and Bowlsby said he’s made direct contact with Gov. Greg Abbott’s office.

“We feel like we’re getting great information,” Bowlsby said. “But to think that anybody is going to go through the year without positive tests, it’s just not realistic.”

Houston stopped voluntary workouts when six players tested positive. Late Wednesday, Kansas State reported eight players were positive, too. Auburn, Iowa State, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech have announced positive tests. Other schools aren’t as forthcoming with their testing data, though.

Ohio State made players sign what the school called the “Buckeye Pledge,” which was thought to be a COVID-related waiver absolving the school from any liability. The school clarified things after a backlash ensued.

Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte said the school has not required athletes to sign any kind of waiver. The athletic department sent a 19-page manual to all athletes and parents that detailed the new procedure and protocols in place to keep everyone safe from the coronavirus.

On Thursday, public health officials said the state of Texas had a record 3,516 active new COVID-19 cases and 43 new deaths, the second-highest total in a month. The state is likely to surpass more than 100,000 reported cases in the next few days.

UT has on-boarded more than 100 players over the last two weeks, a team spokesman said. All athletes had coronavirus test performed at UT’s expense. Those who are testing positive will self-isolate in their apartment or dorm, a team spokesman said.

Players are still meeting with coaches via Zoom web calls, but coaches cannot attend the voluntary workouts at Frank Denius Fields. The NCAA football oversight committee approved a plan Wednesday that would allow for the start of preseason work to begin six weeks before the opener.

UT is scheduled to start the season Sept. 5 at home against South Florida. Currently, Gov. Greg Abbott has allowed at least 50% stadium capacity for pro and college sporting venues.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, a key member of the White House’s COVID-19 task force, told CNN that football players need to be isolated if there’s any hope of a season at all.

“Unless players are essentially in a bubble — insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day — it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” Fauci said. “If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year.”

At the NFL level, several Dallas Cowboys, including running back Ezekiel Elliott, and some Houston Texans have tested positive.

In response to Fauci, the NFL’s chief medical officer said the league is establishing “rigorous protocols that call for a shared responsibility from everyone inside our football ecosystem.”

“We will be flexible and adaptable in this environment to adjust to the virus as needed,” Dr. Allen Sills said in a statement.

College athletic departments don’t have the luxury of following one standard protocol. Each school within each conference is addressing the issue as best they can.

“You can do all the right things, but unlike professional athletes, I don’t think we’re going to lock college kids down and take away their personal liberties,” Bowlsby said. “There’s certain amount of that you have to live and you try and educate kids as much as you can. You may not get real sick from this, but you may get positive and infect somebody who will get real sick from it.”

Texas coach Tom Herman was asked earlier this month about worst-case scenario planning said said, “I have no earthly idea.”

“I know that the biggest mitigation strategy and most effective mitigation strategy that we have right now is educating our players,” Herman said on June 11 before players started returning to campus. “And we have one week as coaches need to be great role models of wearing masks, being socially distant and washing our hands and washing our mask every time we use them and all of those things.”

Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com.

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