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COVID-19 outbreaks on Alabama, Oklahoma State football teams serve as warning for Pac-12

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NCAA schools allowed athletes to return to campus for voluntary practices this week for the first time since March. But student-athletes’ arrivals quickly turned dangerous at some universities.

This morning Alabama football announced that five Crimson Tide players tested positive for COVID-19, raising serious questions about the viability of football nationwide in the fall.

Oklahoma State’s football program also reported at least three of its players tested positive for the disease.

On May 22, the Southeastern Conference (SEC) announced that schools could commence voluntary offseason training starting June 8, hence why the Alabama athletes returned to Tuscaloosa for workouts earlier this week.

The positive-tested players’ identities have not been disclosed “due to privacy laws,” said university communications representative Ryan Bradley. The Crimson Tide athletes were asymptomatic and are now in quarantine — but at least one infected student participated in player-led voluntary workouts and may have exposed others.

By definition, voluntary workouts are focused on small group weight-lifting and conditioning work, with on-field coaches strictly prohibited from interaction. This design, often used in the off-season, inherently limits contact, but the fact that even these workouts spread disease is a national red flag for athletes.

Football is a contact sport, so once contact practices begin in the next few weeks, cases may skyrocket. With players living together, eating together and sweating together, immense precautions and extensive testing will need to be put in place in a relatively short time span to help prevent a feared second wave of COVID-19.

As of now, however, the Crimson Tide and SEC anticipate playing a full season, including a Sept. 5 season opener against USC in Arlington, Texas.

Nevertheless, the status of Pac-12 football — which includes both USC and Stanford — is still largely unknown for the fall season given the wide closures still in place on the West Coast.

“We’re in never neverland,” said Stanford football head coach David Shaw ’94 in mid-May. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. My hope is the majority of universities can participate so we can have a real season.”

Despite the uncertainty, however, many Pac-12 leaders speak as if business will continue as usual. On May 26, the conference cleared the way for voluntary in-person athletic workouts starting June 15, subject to the decision of each campus and relevant governmental entities. However, Stanford’ campus is still closed to athletic practices as the University follows Santa Clara County orders.

In contrast, Arizona State and Utah have both announced plans to reopen facilities starting June 15 — which raises more questions about how the conference will proceed given unequal opening dates, access to campus and stadium regulations on spectators.

“I think June 15 is optimistic for a lot of us on the West Coast, not impossible but optimistic,” Shaw said last week. “As long as we’re back in at some point during the month of July, we won’t be far behind.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that sports could return without fans as early as this month statewide, and reopening of gyms is believed to come soon also.

As of how, however, Stanford athletes will continue at-home workouts until the University produces a concrete timeline that takes into account necessary safety precautions.

Contact Cybele Zhang at cybelez ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Cybele Zhang '22 is majoring in English Literature with a minor in German Studies. The Los Angeles-native has served as Sports Editor, her current position, for Vol. 255, 257 and 258. Her writing covers a wide range of sports, but she especially enjoys writing about women in sports and NCAA policy. Contact her at [email protected]