You can say this about the college football industrial complex: it knows how to take care of its own.
Iowa rid itself of its longtime strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle on Monday after a long line of former players accused him of abusive behavior, including racist comments.
To make him go away, the school sent Doyle off with a $1.1 million parting gift (along with 15 months of health benefits) — quite a bit more than the $15,000 settlement it paid one of the 13 players who ended up hospitalized in 2011 after one of Doyle’s punishing winter workouts.
As for taking care of the unpaid help, that continues to be a different story.
For all the seeming loosening of rules that would allow athletes to profit from their own fame, and the sudden leap to the side of players who want to see social justice reforms, there is no shortage of reminders that athletic and university leaders treat the concerns of athletes as secondary.
That became increasingly clear as football players returned to their campuses this month for workouts. At Ohio State, the Columbus Dispatch reported, that meant signing a waiver acknowledging the risk of returning during the coronavirus pandemic. It is called “The Buckeye Pledge,” though a more accurate title might be: “Don’t Blame Us.”
The idea came from Indiana University, whose meticulously detailed 17-page document includes which worker will be responsible for maintaining protocols at specific workout stations and what brands of disinfectant the school is using. It also includes a waiver that athletes are required to sign that alerts them that if they do not follow guidelines — like self-quarantining after a positive test or practicing social distancing — they can be dismissed from the team.
The rough translation: wear a mask in public or lose your scholarship.
Indiana’s waiver for football players notes that violators could be dismissed from their team.
Those guidelines, however, were warm and fuzzy compared with those laid out by Southern Methodist, which requires its athletes to absolve the school or its employees from any legal claims related to Covid-19. And, by the way, if there is a lawsuit, S.M.U. is claiming home-court advantage by declaring Texas courts as “the exclusive forum.” (A copy of the release at S.M.U., which as a private school is not obligated to make it public, was obtained by the Dallas Morning News.)
Whether or not such waivers would carry any legal weight — Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith said “I’m not sure it would stand up in a court of law” — they are part of a trend among universities attempting to shift responsibility to their athletes rather than providing them safer conditions, said Dr. Kathleen Bachynski, an assistant professor of public health at Muhlenberg College.
In this case, athletes who cannot join the team if they do not sign the waiver could be particularly vulnerable to coercion.
“Their enrollment in college is so deeply tied to football that a student might feel obligated to sign whatever they’re handed so they can keep playing football,” said Bachynski, who added that similar pressures are why concussion symptoms are underreported in football.
S.M.U. Athletic Director Rick Hart and Indiana Athletic Director Fred Glass did not respond to interview requests. But Smith, the Ohio State athletic director, said his school’s document is an attempt to manage the behavior of teenagers and young adults while they are away from football, so that they give themselves the best chance to play this fall.
“You have to put yourselves in the shoes of a 17- or 18-year-old,” said Smith, adding that he worries only about the behavior of a small share of the 118 players on the football roster. “When they go to their apartment, we don’t control that environment. We don’t control what they do on the weekends. We don’t control what they do on July 4.”
It is hard to know just how many schools are requiring such waivers — a Pac-12 Conference official said it was necessary to check with each school — but it figures to be many of the 130 schools that play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level if the practices mirror the way that schools are treating coronavirus testing data.
Thus far, about a dozen schools have announced how many athletes or staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus since June 1, when the N.C.A.A. allowed colleges to open their facilities for workouts if allowed under local health guidelines.
After six University of Houston football players tested positive for the virus last week, the school announced that it was halting voluntary workouts. At Iowa State, 10 athletes, including two football players, have tested positive. At Alabama, eight football players were in quarantine last week after testing positive. (For those checking the Iron Bowl scoreboard, Auburn announced last week it had three positive cases.)
But don’t expect anything near a full accounting.
The Associated Press reported Sunday that more than half of the 66 Football Bowl Division schools that responded to a query said they would not disclose testing data, cloaking themselves in privacy laws that prohibit the release of personal information like individual names but say nothing about making public the raw numbers of tests and positive results.
This lack of transparency came as athletes reported to campus amid spikes in coronavirus cases in 21 states — mostly across the southern United States — including Texas, Florida and Arizona. Many schools have students arriving from different regions. Notre Dame, for example, began testing Monday for a return to campus for its players, who hail from 29 states, Washington, D.C., and Germany.
(Thus far, Houston is the only school to report that its cases were symptomatic.)
“It’s not just your broken ankle,” Bachynski said. “You might have come into contact with people you’re spreading that risk to. A pandemic that’s killed more than 100,000 Americans is clearly a situation where ethically you’d need to be sharing the basic numbers as a matter of public health and public safety.”
Of course, ethics and the business of college sports often have difficulty occupying the same space.
Consider how many coaches sit in a recruit’s living room and tell a mother he’ll look after Junior like he’s his own son. What does that look like at Ohio State, which for nearly 20 years did nothing to stop a team doctor from fondling athletes during annual physicals? Or whose current athletic director, Smith, was suspended for failing to alert others that police were investigating domestic violence allegations against an assistant football coach?
At the moment, it looks like this: being required to sign a “pledge” of all the things you will agree to do — monitor yourself for symptoms, quarantine after a positive test, follow the medical staff’s instructions, stay home if feeling sick, frequently sanitize your hands and keep personal and shared spaces clean.
Nowhere does the two-page document detail any steps that are required from the school — like how a player in isolation would get food or medical treatment, or how frequently he and his teammates will be tested. Also, Ohio State is among the schools not releasing any testing data to the public.
But the document does say that the virus is highly contagious and that Ohio State, which has opened its campus for essential programs like elective medical procedures, dental training, lab research and football, is following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Still, near the end, it cautions, “I can never be completely shielded from all risk of illness caused by Covid-19 or other infections.” In other words: sign here, you’re on your own.