The COVID-19 situation at the University of Idaho moved into the national discussion early Tuesday, when WatchStadium.com published a report detailing that 73 percent of players on the football team indicated they don’t want to play this fall because of concerns with health and safety.
Brett McMurphy, quoting multiple anonymous UI players, reported the team met last week without the coaches’ knowledge, and 82 players voted confidentially on whether they “felt comfortable participating in (the) 2020 season given the current COVID-19 policies that are in place,” a player told McMurphy.
Of the players polled, Stadium reported 60 voted against conducting the fall season, and that those players have communicated their concerns to eighth-year coach Paul Petrino, athletic director Terry Gawlik, and school president Scott Green.
The development comes one day after UI confirmed that nine Vandal student-athletes have tested positive for coronavirus in an approximate month-long time frame. Sources with direct knowledge of the situation told the Tribune the majority of positive tests come from the football team, and two staffers also contracted COVID-19.
UI spokeswoman Jodi Walker said 15 student-athletes have had to quarantine at some point since early July, while nine were symptomatic, and self-isolated to prevent potential spread of the disease.
Players were quoted anonymously by Stadium because “they feared being cut from the team and/or losing their scholarships if they were identified,” McMurphy wrote.
Tribune sources close to the program were unable to provide definitive answers on the poll’s exact numbers and other specifics. Two said they had been caught off-guard by the report, and another was unsure of the poll’s exact results but not entirely surprised by the number.
Former UI quarterback Mason Petrino, Paul Petrino’s son, shared the Stadium article on Twitter, posting, “Very false.” When asked by a commenter to elaborate, the recent graduate indicated he’d talked to multiple people who disputed the report.
Sources expressed concerns about the season to the Tribune last week, worrying that the spread of the disease will only worsen as the year progresses, and as thousands of other students arrive on campus to begin the fall semester.
Anonymous players disclosed a similar story to Stadium, saying they didn’t want to risk infecting family members and don’t feel educated enough on the coronavirus’ long-term effects to play yet. Another noted some players “feel we have been neglected by the NCAA in terms of wealth over health.”
One of the players added: “A lot of us feel like player safety isn’t a top priority and they’re pushing this season (to be played) without proper safety precautions. We feel it would be safer to play in the spring with the other (Football Championship Subdivision) conferences that have moved to the spring.”
Stadium reported that some players believe UI’s program is steaming ahead with its plans because of the potential negative financial impacts that arise if it were to be canceled — a sentiment shared by some sources who spoke to the Tribune.
“We’re worried about being forced to play for financial reasons in the fall, when the safer option would be to delay the season or move entirely to the spring,” an anonymous player told Stadium.
Idaho distributed a news release later in the day, in which Paul Petrino and Gawlik voiced support for players and their rights to speak out if troubled by the spread of the pandemic.
“I told them if they don’t feel comfortable, they need to tell somebody,” Gawlik said. “They need to discuss with their trainers, with me, with their coach or whomever. We will take care of them. We are not going to remove anyone’s athletic aid (scholarships) because of their individual concerns. We just need to know.”
Added Petrino: “We stand behind our student-athletes and fully support their right to speak out. I also have shared with our players that I am available to listen and discuss options at any time if they have concerns about returning to play in the current environment.”
The football team remains set to open fall camp Friday, and has been holding noncontact drills since players began arriving on campus in late June. The NCAA Board of Governors, per HERO Sports, will determine today whether the FCS will have a postseason this year — a decision that perhaps will dictate if Big Sky seasons are moved to the spring to join several other FCS conferences.
“Our athletic training staff continues to do an excellent job of adapting and implementing new practices to help our student-athletes and staff re-integrate as safely as possible,” Petrino said. Petrino and a source close to the team have complimented UI’s training staff — head trainer Chris Walsh, in particular — for taking the necessary steps to conduct drills with safety in mind. UI’s athletic department said players’ temperatures are measured, health-related questions are posed and players are watched closely throughout exercises.
It’s unclear how many active cases there are among Vandal athletes at this time, according to the school.
Sources said local testing capacities have been limited, and some players who were thought to have been in contact with positive-testing teammates have been directed to quarantine, rather than retesting, in order to conserve resources. Also, if a player who received a negative test had been in contact beforehand with a positive-testing person, he still must quarantine for two weeks, to be safe.
The school announced last week that it will use an in-house system — a collaborative effort with Gritman Medical Center — to test every student before the semester’s planned Aug. 24 start, with those results being made available in 24 hours.
Idaho’s release stated the Vandals met on a players-only teleconference call last week to discuss “their current opinions and used the opportunity to come together closer as a team.
“The team remains consistent in their messaging that the current goal is to prepare for the 2020 season,” the release reads.
UI met as a team on Tuesday, along with Gawlik, to lay out finalized safety protocols for the upcoming, albeit tentative, season.
“Today, we gathered as a team to discuss the parameters of the fall season, as well as the safety protocols that exist in our facility and on campus,” Petrino said. “I really appreciated the opportunity to collaboratively discuss the dynamic and difficult decisions that are being made throughout the country on these issues. We will continue to communicate with our team and seek their feedback as we work together to get through these unprecedented times.”
Clark may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 848-2260.