Colleges Take Phased Approach to Athletes' Return

Paul Steinbach Headshot
[Photo courtesy of University of Maryland]
[Photo courtesy of University of Maryland]

If any positives can emerge from a pandemic, one might be the further realization of just how important the athletics, fitness and recreation industries are to our collective physical and mental wellbeing. Most professionals were more than willing to shutter their storefronts and sacrifice entire playing seasons as the nation came to grips with COVID-19, but there's no denying the deep sense of loss inherent to that process β€” feelings exacerbated by the months of forced inactivity and isolation that followed.

It's no wonder the desire to get back to business is so strong.

Now comes the challenging work of reopening. With renewed commitment to customer service and care, industry leaders are re-examining the operational status quo like never before β€” and finding safer ways to deliver the most coveted of end products: good health.

These pages represent an overview of progress being made by organizations and individuals alike during this unpredictable period of transition in athletics, fitness and recreation.

β€”The Editors


Mere months ago, even as universities closed and spring sports seasons were canceled, it was hard to imagine fall without college football. Then it became harder still to picture how football could possibly happen. Would players be asked to report to campus even if non-athlete students could not? Would fans be welcomed to fill stadiums to capacity? A fraction of capacity? Not welcomed at all?

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The NCAA set June 1 as a date that athletes could return to campus facilities for voluntary preseason workouts. The Southeastern Conference determined its athletes could resume on-campus functions a week later. The Big 12 a week after that. And so, the cautious-but-condensed prep for a 2020 season began in patchwork fashion. Even within conferences, member institutions marched to their own drummer. By June 1, Big Ten member Nebraska had for months been caring for more than 100 student-athletes on campus, with nutritionists supplying curbside meals. Moving indoors was the next step. Said athletic director Bill Moos, "The safest place for our student-athletes is Lincoln, Nebraska, and the safest place in Lincoln is our facilities."

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"Every community is different, and schools may return to campus at different times. But each will have to balance the need to return with the top priority of protecting student-athlete health and wellbeing, " NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline said May 29, as the association's Sports Science Institute updated its resocialization guidelines. "Until there is a vaccine in place, medical experts recommend adopting specific practices β€” including testing and social distancing when possible β€” and having plans in place for stopping spread if and when staff or students test positive for the coronavirus."

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Located in one of the states least affected statistically by coronavirus, the University of Wyoming claims to be the first Division I institution in the nation to welcome athletes back for voluntary workouts. A seven-phase plan brings in athletes from various sports in limited numbers, and all athletes and coaches are tested, even if asymptomatic. Athletes' movement is restricted β€” no access to facilities, but solo outdoor runs allowed β€” for their first 14 days back. No athlete is allowed to arrive mid-phase, and phases will continue until spring sports athletes return in August β€” assuming the UW campus opens for the fall term. Football players have worked out in rotating groups of no more than 20, and basketball players only in pairs. Biometric fingerprint scanners have been disabled, with facility access instead granted by on-premises staffers.

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The University of Utah staggered its return dates, but in a different way, with in-state student-athletes in football, men's and women's basketball, gymnastics, volleyball, and men's and women's soccer allowed on campus June 15, out-of-state athletes June 22 and new athletes June 26. An all-clear from those three phases will allow additional student-athletes to return beginning July 13. All will be given COVID-19 and antibody tests upon arrival.

Testing is key. Many schools are funneling facility visitors through specific entrances β€” where they sign in and receive a temperature scan. At Louisiana-Monroe, where weight room sessions are limited to two coaches and eight athletes, coaches and staff receive a wristband that must be replaced with a new scan and band every 12 hours those individuals are onsite. Arkansas, which will stagger its arrivals by sport similar to Utah, opened its facilities in phases, as well. Phase 1, which began June 8, availed athletes to weight and training rooms in multiple facilities, but competition spaces, practice areas, locker and equipment rooms, athlete lounges and hydrotherapy areas remained closed. Razorbacks showing a temperature exceeding 100.4 degrees are tested for COVID-19, as are those arriving from so-called hotspots: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and New Orleans.

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The University of Illinois is testing athletes for COVID-19 repeatedly before and after a quarantine period in campus residence halls. They will also fill out a questionnaire regarding possible exposure history. Positive tests will lead to isolation and contact tracing. Training sessions will be scheduled in small groups, and roommates will train together to contain potential exposure and spread.

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Schools across the country are adhering to CDC guidelines, which include mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent sanitizing of facility surfaces and equipment. As of late May, adidas had supplied the University of Kansas athletic department with 2,000 masks to be worn by students and staff indoors. At West Virginia, where athletes had to test negative three days before arriving in Morgantown, weight equipment has been moved outdoors, where it is spaced accordingly and sanitized after each use. Neighboring Virginia kept its weight room closed initially in favor of workouts in a more spacious indoor practice facility.

Throughout the resocialization process, athletic departments have been wise to take cues from the medical community β€” and many don't have to look far for advice. "Our football program is incredibly fortunate to have world-class medical experts and resources at our immediate disposal," University of Pittsburgh head football coach Pat Narduzzi said shortly before the Panthers resumed workouts June 8 β€” three months removed from their last official gathering. "We are taking their guidance and advice every step of the way for every activity we'll engage in this offseason and beyond."


What are the legal risks, if any, of reopening?

No one knows exactly how the reopening of athletics, fitness and recreation facilities will play out in the months ahead β€” or what the rewards and risks of doing so might look like. AB asked the regular contributors to our Legal Action column to focus on the latter aspect. What is the potential liability exposure posed when doing business during a pandemic?

"For me, it is almost too simple," says Paul Anderson, director of the Sports Law Program and National Sports Law Institute at the Marquette University School of Law. "If the state you are in has certain mandates, and you follow them, then there should be no liability. If you do not, though, there could be."

Anderson points to the haste with which the hospitality industry, so prevalent in Marquette's surrounding community of Milwaukee, sought to reopen. "Most sports entities seem to be on top of this right now in a way that bars and restaurants are not," he says. "It also seems that most states, cities or municipalities are not punishing anyone who does not follow the rules. The only thing I have seen Milwaukee do is go after those who test positive and refuse to quarantine, but when bars opened when they should not have, nothing happened."

Sports law professor John Wolohan says that a facility's best defense may be how pervasive in our collective consciousness the pandemic has been over several months. He uses the example of fitness facilities to make the legal "assumption of risk" argument. "When customers use health and fitness clubs, they have to assume some β€” if not all β€” of the risk of getting the virus," says Wolohan, who teaches at Syracuse University in New York, the state that emerged as the pandemic's epicenter for much of the spring. "It would be impossible to argue that the customers did not know the risk and the dangers. That being said, I believe that by opening, the facilities assume a duty to clean and disinfect the facilities more than they normally do."

Responsibility β€” both personal and professional β€” will be critical to mitigate spread of COVID-19. How responsibility is attached to contagion and death, should legal challenges arise from reopening, remains to be seen.

"I think the liability exposure to facilities has the potential to be one of the most compelling legal issues to result from COVID," says Kristi Schoepfer-Bochicchio, chair of the Physical Education and Sports Performance Department at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., and executive director of the Sport and Recreation Law Association. "I think there is potential for 'assumption of risk' doctrine to prevail. Facilities will try to transfer liability to patrons for a known and assumed risk. However, the counterpoint is that COVID risks are now foreseeable, so the facilities have a legal responsibility to protect against them.

"I've already seen conversations where some folks are likening this to the 'baseball rule,' meaning COVID will be an assumed risk of attending any sporting event, and organizer/providers will not be liable. Given that there isn't likely to be a way to prove how the virus was transmitted to a person within a facility, it may be hard to ultimately find an organizer liable, unless they completely abandoned health and safety practices. Additionally, there will likely be issues related to waivers, and whether a person can or should be asked to waive their right to sue for negligence should they become infected."


This article originally appeared in the July | August 2020 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Colleges take phased approach to athletes’ return " Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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