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NCAA’s COVID-19 crisis: Connecticut cancels football season as Colorado State probes players’ claims

The NCAA’s coronavirus dilemma worsened Wednesday as the University of Connecticut announced that its 2020 football season has been cancelled and Colorado State launched an investigation into claims that football coaches discouraged players from reporting coronavirus symptoms. 

‘After receiving guidance from state and public health officials and consulting with football student-athletes, we’ve decided that we will not compete on the gridiron this season,’ UConn athletic director David Benedict said. ‘The safety challenges created by COVID-19 place our football student-athletes at an unacceptable level of risk.’ 

The Huskies began spring practice on February 4 and were one of the only teams in the country to complete a full spring schedule. The team returned to campus in early July and no one has tested positive for coronavirus, UConn officials said. 

Wednesday’s developments occurred as the NCAA faced a decision on whether or not to cancel fall championship games. 

The NCAA Board of Directors allowed each division of the association to decide independently whether it will be able to conduct championship events safely in fall sports such as soccer, volleyball and lower levels of football during the coronavirus pandemic.

In response to the NCAA’s announcement, championships in all fall sports for 2020-21 at the NCAA Division II and III level were canceled on Wednesday. 

The board had been considering what to do about fall championship events sponsored by the NCAA, but instead of making a broad decision across three divisions, it set parameters for each to make its own call by August 21.

According to the board’s decision, at least 50 percent of teams competing in a fall sport in any division must conduct a regular season this fall for a championship to be held.

Championships may use reduced fields of teams or competitors in individual sports and either predetermined sites or single sites to deal with COVID-19.

The board also said schools must honor an athlete’s scholarship if the athlete opts out of the coming season because of concerns about COVID-19.   

The Colorado State investigation, launched school president Joyce McConnell, stems from an article published in the Coloradoan on Tuesday. Rams football players and members of the athletic staff say coaches told them not to report coronavirus symptoms and threatened players with reduced playing time should they quarantine.

McConnell promised a swift investigation and full transparency.

‘The story raises concerns about whether the health and well-being of our student athletes is truly the top priority of Colorado State University,’ McConnell said in a statement. ‘Let me reiterate: the health and well-being of the CSU community is our top priority.’

Colorado State voluntarily paused football team activities on July 29. The school said there have been 16 positive cases among all student-athletes, including 11 in football.

On Monday, Colorado State announced it had conducted 150 tests on student-athletes for the coronavirus. The results are expected later this week.

‘We take the concerns of our student athletes extremely seriously,’ McConnell said. ‘If we learn that there are any employees of CSU Athletics who do not share Colorado State University’s commitment to student health and well-being above all else, we will address the issue immediately.’

Director of athletics Joe Parker said in a statement he embraces the investigation. He said the report that student-athletes were instructed to withhold symptoms would ‘run counter to repeated communications we have had with our staff and student-athletes.’

‘This is unacceptable and will be dealt with swiftly,’ Parker maintained.

Rams football head coach Steve Addazio added in a statement: ‘Health and welfare of our student-athletes on the Colorado State football team is our top priority, and I fully support president McConnell’s investigation into concerns about whether these protocols were properly followed by everyone involved with our program.’

Addazio was hired in December after spending seven seasons with Boston College. The Rams are scheduled to open the season September 19 by hosting Northern Colorado. 

Colorado State’s issues come as the NCAA is currently weighing cancelling fall sports championship games.   

Meanwhile, a group of Pac-12 football players with the #WeAreUnited movement met with officials from the California governor’s office Tuesday to discuss concerns about their schools’ COVID-19 protocols and protecting their college eligibility.  

The Pac-12 players hope an executive order from Governor Gavin Newsom could mandate player-approved, third-party oversight of COVID-19 rules at the Pac-12’s four California schools and ensure players who opt out of the coming season because of coronavirus won’t lose a year of eligibility.

The Pac-12 has said athletes who opt out will stay on scholarship this season, but whether they would be allowed to preserve their eligibility in that situation is undetermined.

‘We really want to be able to move a little faster in getting heath guidelines out there for us,’ California offensive lineman Valentino Daltoso told AP during a conference call with several players from the group. ‘The eligibility piece is huge for us. If you were to opt out without eligibility guarantees you could be effectively ending your eligibility. The governor’s office can help us with that.’

A request from comment from the California governor’s office was not immediately returned.

After about a month organizing behind the scenes, the players took their movement public Sunday, issuing with a lengthy list of demands related to healthy and safety, racial injustice and economic rights. They say if the demands are not addressed they will opt out of the season. 

In the Pac-12, football practice is scheduled to start August 17, with the season slated to begin September 26.

The players with #WeAreUnited are expected to meet later this week with Pac-12 officials, but hope the California governor can expedite their initiative.

‘The season is creeping up on us and we have no answers,’ Stanford reciver Elijah Higgins said.

Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott responded Monday to the group’s request for a meeting with conference officials with an letter, which was obtained by AP.

Scott detailed how the Pac-12’s response to COVID-19 and the school’s attempts to play through the pandemic have been guided by the conferences Medical Advisory Committee.

‘This committee is comprised of leading experts in the areas of infectious disease and public health,’ Scott wrote. ‘Additionally, the Pac-12’s return to competition plans have always been subject to and in accordance with the advice of public health officials and all relevant government orders, and are continuously evaluated based on the best available science and data.’  

As for UConn football, the Huskies had already been taken off the schedules of Illinois, Indiana, Maine and Mississippi by those schools, and games against North Carolina and Virginia remained uncertain, UConn officials said. 

Many of the Power Five conferences are playing league-only games this season. 

The football team will remain enrolled in classes either in-person or virtually, and will keep access to facilities and support services under NCAA rules.

‘We engaged and listened to the concerns of our football student-athletes and feel this is the best decision for their health, safety, and well-being,’ coach Randy Edsall said. ‘Our team is united in this approach and we will use this time to further player development within the program and gear ourselves to the 2021 season.’

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont had expressed reluctance to allow the football team to travel to any state with a high virus infection rate. He said the team would be subject to the state’s 14-day quarantine rule upon its return to Storrs from away games.

Connecticut, New York and New Jersey have travel advisories that require visitors from more than 30 states and Puerto Rico to quarantine for 14 days, with certain exceptions.

UConn officials said they will be reaching out to season ticket holders in the coming days to explain refunds and other options.

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