As debate swirls about the return of college fall sports amid an increasing number of positive COVID-19 tests on campuses, football coaches and athletic directors have been loudly championing their schools’ health and testing protocols.
The schools are much less forthcoming, though, about the actual number of positive tests in their programs and other related data.
In response to a series of questions from ESPN about their COVID-19 testing protocols, almost half of the 65 schools in the Power 5 conferences declined to share data about how many positive tests their programs have had to date. Nearly a third of the schools overall declined to provide information about protocols in addition to withholding the number of athletes who have tested positive. Twenty-one schools that declined to provide data are in the conferences that plan to play college sports this fall: the ACC, Big 12 and SEC.
Many of the schools that declined to give data to ESPN cited federal student privacy laws, university protocols and other confidentiality considerations, although legal experts say those laws shouldn’t be applied to such a request because the data wouldn’t identify specific students.
Among the questions ESPN asked school administrators were how many tests have been administered since the school started testing athletes; how many athletes have tested positive; what protocols the department has in place once an athlete tests positive; how many athletes have heart-related issues due to the coronavirus; and whether the school shares data with government health officials.
Coaches and athletic directors have been saying that athletes are safe — or even safer — within their athletic programs and team environment. Even so, some of those same programs declined to share testing data with ESPN.
“We’ve just followed our university protocols when we do have positive tests, whether they be staff, student-athletes or what have you,” said Greg McGarity, athletics director at Georgia, one of the schools that declined to answer any of the nine survey questions. “They’re reported through the university channels, and everything is done by the book.”
Each of the Power 5 conferences leaves it up to its member institutions to decide whether to release testing data, as does the NCAA.
Natalie Dean, a biostatistician and assistant professor at the University of Florida College of Public Health & Health Professions, said knowing testing information about athletes versus regular students is important.
“These teams are interacting closely. You can’t do socially distanced football. It’s a different set of risks than kids coming back to their classrooms and taking their classes,” she said. “It also informs decisions about whether schools should be playing against each other, because there’s interaction that way. It’s just a different set of considerations.”
Carlos del Rio, a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine, said he believes transparency is always important but that he doesn’t think the schools have an obligation to release their testing data. Still, he wrote in an email to ESPN, “[I]t would be of use that they do so that we could better understand this virus.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, Ohio State coach Ryan Day and Nebraska coach Scott Frost have said their players are, or feel, less at risk of contracting the coronavirus playing football than they would be if the season isn’t played. Sean Magee, Michigan’s associate athletic director for football, said Saturday that the football team had zero positive tests after administering 822 tests in August.
Michigan and Clemson were among the 10 schools that answered all survey questions pertaining to testing volume, the number of positive results, hospitalizations and whether any athletes had tested positive for post COVID-19 heart conditions. Alabama provided ESPN with testing data for athletics but did not separate athletes from coaches. Nebraska and Ohio State declined to provide testing data to ESPN, citing privacy concerns.
Jerry Emig, a spokesman for Ohio State athletics, said the school plans to share campuswide testing information to the public “in a way that protects individuals’ medical and educational privacy.” A spokesman for Nebraska athletics said the school shares results with local and state health officials, but not publicly.
While Nebraska has not publicly shared numbers of positive COVID-19 cases among its athletic department, which has more than 600 athletes, it has reported positive cases among smaller groups of nonathletes. A report was issued on the university’s website last month about up to five possible cases at the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority house, where fewer than 100 women live; since then, the school has announced the names of eight other Greek houses under quarantine due to four to five COVID-19 cases in each.
Among the 10 schools that completely answered all of ESPN’s questions, four still plan to play fall sports — Clemson, Iowa State, Missouri and Oklahoma. The six other schools that fully responded are in the Big Ten (Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin) and the Pac-12 (Oregon State and Stanford), which postponed fall sports.
“We just felt as an athletic department that we wanted to be transparent,” said athletics director Barry Alvarez of Wisconsin, which provided answers to each question. “We want our student-athletes and staff to know that we’re thorough, and we’re going to do a thorough job and that we take their health and well-being seriously. I want their parents to feel comfortable that we’re doing everything we possibly can.”
Three universities — Baylor, Notre Dame and Rutgers — declined to answer survey questions but directed ESPN to online statements about the number of COVID-19 cases among their athletes. But Notre Dame’s statement only included numbers for its football team. Rutgers directed ESPN to an Aug. 14 report in which football coach Greg Schiano said 30 of his players tested positive, but the school declined to give numbers of cases for all athletes.
Utah, which isn’t playing fall sports this year, was the only Pac-12 school that declined to answer all of ESPN’s questions. A spokesman for Utah directed ESPN to Utes athletics director Mark Harlan’s comments on why his department would not release the numbers of positive tests.
“That’s me. I’ll own that decision,” Harlan said in a July 31 news conference. “What I feel is most important in this matter is that we follow all the university and county and state guidelines as it relates to our testing. So any results, positive, negative, we send on to the proper authorities, and I believe that’s our obligation. I just don’t believe our student-athletes should be singled out in the population for positives and negatives, and we’ve rolled in that direction.”
Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, said federal privacy laws shouldn’t be applied to coronavirus testing data because it’s impossible to determine which athletes have tested positive and which haven’t based on numbers alone.
“There’s almost no way that anyone can reverse engineer the names of students just by knowing a number,” LoMonte said. “If they are forging ahead and playing with 40 positive test results on their team, the public has a right to know that.”
LoMonte also pointed out that colleges routinely have athletes sign medical waivers that permit athletic departments to release information about injuries and other conditions.
“Colleges have freely been giving out medical information about their athletes for a very long time and it presents no privacy issues,” he said.
Thirteen schools answered ESPN’s question about the number of positive COVID cases but declined to answer questions about heart-related issues and/or hospitalizations.
Of the 26 schools that answered the question about heart-related conditions for student-athletes, only one school — Oregon State — reported having an athlete who developed heart-related issues after contracting COVID-19, but the school stated it was not myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. Myocarditis has been a growing concern among cardiologists and other medical providers and has fueled unease among some Power 5 administrators about the viability of fall sports.
ESPN reported last month that at least five Big Ten athletes had developed myocarditis, and the NCAA’s chief medical officer, Dr. Brian Hainline, said during an Aug. 13 conference call that he knew of at least a dozen athletes at other schools that had been found to have the condition.
Dr. Jonathan Kim, a sports cardiologist at Emory University, a team cardiologist at Georgia Tech and a member of the ACC Sports and Exercise Council, said scientists and doctors in sports cardiology are attempting to build a registry of heart screenings for athletes who have recovered from COVID-19 and need the data to determine the prevalence of myocarditis and other heart ailments.
“We need to look at the data,” Kim said. “I do believe that at all levels, from the professional levels to the collegiate level, all of these data of athletes that are going to be screened, we’re going to be able to look at and to analyze and to make decisions. … We all realize that’s going to be very important. The data are going to be extremely important to help guide us.”
Dr. Jonathan Drezner, the director of the University of Washington Medicine Center for Sports Cardiology, who is overseeing the registry, said he is not aware of any conference or athletic department that has instructed its team physicians not to participate in the voluntary registry.
“This study is completely separate from university decisions to release their data on COVID testing,” Drezner said in an email.
Dean, the Florida biostatistician, said there is a stigma associated with having positive test results, but entities of all sorts — from restaurants to companies to athletic programs — need to “do the right thing” and be transparent.
“Places worry that they’re going to be on the front page of the news. That discourages them from being transparent,” Dean said. “But that’s putting those patrons and employees and athletes at an elevated risk.”
ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura, Sam Khan Jr., John Mastroberardino and Kevin Van Valkenburg contributed to this report.