Student-athletes across the country have an unprecedented decision to make this year.
Do they play it safe and opt out of competition in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic? Or should they accept the risks that come with playing and try to mitigate the virus—and all the consequences that could come with it—as best they can?
I caught up with several former Arizona Wildcats student-athletes from different sports to get their perspectives. They were granted anonymity so they could be as honest as possible.
Here are their responses. Some have been lightly edited for clarity.
Former football player
What factors would weigh into your decision to play? “The biggest thing is that I love football, I always have, and it’s unfortunate I’m not playing right now. I’d do anything I could, my personal precautions, to play, to make that dream happen. But also talking to the team openly like, ‘Hey, what are you actually doing to protect us? How are you gonna mitigate those risks that will come with playing at a university?’ Like other players going to parties, being in class with the students, some students not taking precautions. Where does my protection come in? My health of course is a big factor, but I’m young enough and naive enough that I trust my immune system. If I did get sick, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I wouldn’t die. It’d be really hard and crappy to be sick, and I want to take precautions to prevent getting anyone else get sick, but I want to play. If that means the team needs to offer extra medical precautions and whatnot to make that happen, then they should take those steps if they want to play.
“You also need to trust that other schools are adhering to their protocols. Say an Oregon State player is sick and I’m playing against him, he’d get me sick. So for me personally it boils down to ‘let’s play ball.’ If you don’t want to play ball because of your health concerns, then I understand.”
What would be your biggest concerns about playing? “I saw the Big Ten (has a policy) that if you get sick, you miss four games or whatever it is, and that’s a huge hit. That’d be my biggest fear. I wouldn’t mind playing in the pandemic because I do trust that we are a cash cow. We work for the universities. So when we’re not playing, they’re losing money. So it’s a naive thought to think they’re not going to protect their assets. We’re an asset, especially players who are actually playing, who are stars, who are on the field. Yeah I understand that if I got three games in and the season got canceled I’d feel awful, but I’d get to play. And then it comes down to, especially if I’m a senior, do I just want to just hang on for another year or just declare right away and try to make the NFL? So there’s a lot of variables.”
Would you play? Why? “I would play just because I want it bad enough. It’s who I am. I’m willing to risk being sick for a couple weeks. I get the notion that we don’t understand the post (virus effects), but I’d risk it because it’s a sport I love and I want to play. I came to the university to play football and not to sit on the sideline and take the safest route. I came here to take risks, I came here to prove myself in the field. So I would play. ... Especially if it was my senior year. A lot of these guys who are with the Pac-12 group (that’s threatening to opt out) are younger cats or cats who aren’t playing. And they don’t truly know what it means when the clock hits double zeros forever.”
Do you think there will be a college football season? “Absolutely not. If you look at the pro sports, if they’re having a hard time containing their players, what they do outside of the bubbles and their safety protocols, when you look at college players we’re less mature than professionals and there’s not as much at stake. When you go to a house party, there’s 40 people in a house that are two inches from each other because we’re in college, we want to enjoy college, we want to go out and have fun and hang out with our friends and our families. So I don’t think it’s possible. I don’t think there’s enough coverage to make it where they feel comfortable they can protect every player that’s playing.
“And here’s another thing people don’t think about: Say one player gets corona and they die from it. Whether it’s directly linked or not, that is the biggest lawsuit on Earth that they’re gonna drop. So my guess is that the money guys are just gonna say, ‘We’re going to lose a lot of money this year, but in comparison to what we could risk, it’s going to be minuscule.’ So my guess is they’re just gonna say we’ll just hold off and wait till next year or at least push it back to the spring or whatever.
“My guess is there won’t be fans too. And I actually experienced a game where it felt like there was no fans. It was pissing rain, it was late in third quarter, so the fans were like, ‘f—k this, we’re out.’ I got on the field...and this was the one time I realized I could hear my own thoughts. I was like, ‘This is not okay.’ The environment—the crowd going crazy, the boos, the cheers—is what made college so special for me. So I think they’re just gonna push (the season) and I think that’s probably the best call too. Just wait till they have more data, wait till they have information to make the right decisions.”
Former soccer player
What factors would weigh into your decision to play? “You have to factor in, how realistic is a season? And how is eligibility and scholarships and all of that going to play into it? Especially when it comes to your grade. If you’re a freshman, it probably wouldn’t matter that much. But if you’re a junior or senior, those are years that are going to get taken away. And who’s to really say how likely it is you’re going to get it back? For soccer, you get three games (before you burn your redshirt). So what if you get to that fourth game and it’s canceled because of this whole situation? Am I going to get that eligibility back? Because that sucks. And then you also have to look at the reality of it. In the Pac-12 you have four schools in California who haven’t been given the okay to play. For soccer, we have already half our season cut short (because the non-conference season was cancelled) and now we could potentially only have six games because California schools can’t play.
“The biggest thing too is that not many people know that not every sport is like football, an automatic you-get-it-all (scholarship). ... Football (players) can easily opt out and it’s no big deal. And then on top of that [the Pac-12] adds in that you can opt out, but it’s on “good standing” with your coach on your scholarship. I think there’s a lot of gray area there. What does that mean that it’s on good standing? Because when you’re in sports, you have to be doing good in all aspects—not causing problems, doing well in school, not late to tutoring sessions and all of those things. What if I’m not doing good in one thing and my coach gets mad? He can save money by just taking my scholarship away because all of a sudden we’re not on good standing. So I think that’s such an odd way to put it and I just think it gives more room for people to take advantage of it.”
What would be your biggest concerns about playing? “I just feel like a lot of the protocol lacks common sense. What I heard is that if you’re asymptomatic and you test positive and you’re asymptomatic for 72 hours, you only have to quarantine for 10 days. Versus somebody who’s around you, like your roommate, and they were exposed but continually tested negative, has to quarantine the full 14 days. And then if you’re in season, how is that gonna play out? What if I’m the star of the team and my roommate has it and I’m continuously negative? Am I just out of the game too because I’ve been exposed? That stinks because that’s not my fault. ... To me that doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t benefit anyone right now except for obviously just getting money, which is very important and I understand why you do need to make money.”
Would you play? Why? “It just seems like such a waste to put all my time and effort to not get a full season. ... I would have to [report] in a couple weeks for school anyways, but personally I don’t think I would play. I just don’t see any benefit from it. Obviously I would kind of feel it out to see how I would feel. But overall I just don’t see the reason to play when there’s so many unknowns and nothing is guaranteed right now. And I think the biggest thing that people are on the fence about is the cut of a season. They’re saying it’s not safe to play out of conference, but somehow it’s okay to get on a plane and travel to Colorado or other places. ... If I’m not playing for something that’s bigger than just the games—like a postseason or a tournament—then it seems like it’s just a spring season.”
Former softball player
What factors would weigh into your decision to play? “One of the biggest things I would consider is we might all be together, and together often. Are we getting tested before we all get together? Are we getting tested while we’re together? And are we trusting that everybody is staying at home? Are we allowed to go to the store? I mean, anyone could get [the coronavirus] at any point. So do you find a way to keep everybody indoors? Do you keep everyone at school? I guess I just don’t know the way they’re gonna pull this off. You can’t tell where everybody’s been.”
What would be your biggest concerns about playing? “My biggest concern would be if everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing and not going anywhere. For the league I’m in now, we’re not allowed to go to the grocery store. We’re not allowed to go hang out anywhere. If we do hang out with each other it has be outside and six feet apart even though we’re playing together. They’re really strict guidelines. And of lot of these (college) kids aren’t taking it seriously, especially in Arizona. Everything opened back up quickly and then they shut it down. It’s insane to me that people were going to bars.
“Another concern is with the travel schedule. And let’s say that you finish a weekend, and on a Sunday you just want to have the whole team hang out at the house. Okay well you’re technically not supposed to do that. And you know that one person’s gonna tell other people, ‘hey, the softball team is hanging out here.’ And then it’s just gonna spread from there. So how do you keep a bunch of college kids from living the college life?”
Would you play? Why? “I think I would, but I would easily be one of the more cautious ones in terms of where I go, what I do, and who I talk to you. But knowing what I know now, I think I would play.”
Former volleyball player
What factors would weigh into your decision to play? “In order for me to play, I would want to know that each Pac-12 school is implementing the same or similar procedures as Arizona. I think there would have to be a lot of communication and trust within the volleyball program to make sure that while my teammates and coaches aren’t in the gym, everyone is still being cautious about who they are around so they don’t bring back anything to the core group.”
What would be your biggest concerns about playing? “My biggest concern about playing would just be the travel from each school. I think each facility will take the necessary precautions in keeping everything sanitized, but it’s scary to think a group of 20 people are going to be traveling every weekend throughout multiple airports and hotels and then would play in a gym without knowing if they attracted symptoms.”
Would you play? Why? “I would play because it would be a season that would be truly unforgettable. I think players would come much closer than they ever would due to the amount of adversity they will face. Coaches and players would develop stronger relationships which will aid having a successful season. Even though the schedule won’t be the same and fans might not be able to attend, I don’t think I would be able to pass up the opportunity to play volleyball with my teammates and coaches. Looking back, the best relationships and best memories always came from playing the most competitive games and having to truly come together as a group to overcome those moments.”
Former basketball player
What factors would weigh into your decision to play? “The factors that would weigh into my decision to play is my passion to compete and my love for the sport that I play. Being on the court is where I feel most happy and I also appreciate that it brings joy to the community and to the entire country. Also, the fact that me and my teammates are extremely healthy, in shape and at low risk of being significantly affected. Also we would have access to great doctors and healthcare. As athletes, risk of injury is always there and I believe there is a way to safely compete while still protecting those who are actually at risk from Covid-19.”
What would be your biggest concerns about playing? “My biggest concern would be for anyone (teammates, coaches, referees, etc) with health issues that makes them more vulnerable to the harmful effects of Covid-19. While I am not worried that I would be significantly harmed if I caught the virus, I would be concerned about spreading it among campus and/or to vulnerable family members. I believe student-athletes would have to bear the burden of being even more careful than normal students or other members of society, which may be difficult to ask of some 18-22 year olds on U of A’s campus.”
Would you play? Why? “I would absolutely play. By this point I would have been months away from the sport I love and would be itching to get back on the court. I am not concerned about my own safety as it pertains to catching the virus. I would be more concerned about inherent risks such as tearing an ACL, getting a concussion, or breaking an arm than I would be about catching Covid-19.”
Former tennis player
What factors would weigh into your decision to play? “The factors that would weigh into my decision to play would be if the format was shortened, who we would be allowed to play and what traveling would be like? I think that if the format was shortened it wouldn’t be worth it because under those circumstances anyone can win.”
What would be your biggest concerns about playing? “My biggest concern about playing would be that social distancing wouldn’t be taken seriously when traveling, practicing and competing with my team because it’s hard to do that when there is 8+ girls together in one van. When it comes to matches I don’t think I would have a problem because we are on opposite sides of the court.”
Would you play? Why? “This is probably the hardest question to answer right now because there is so much unknown, but I personally would feel uncomfortable going to class. So if we were doing school online, I would play. But if we weren’t I don’t think I would because I would have been exposed to so many people.”
Former soccer player
What factors would weigh into your decision to play? “I would hope that players and coaches are respectful of each person’s space and beliefs. Not everyone will be on the same page during this crazy time. Additionally, if someone feels sick or has a temperature, I hope they are allowed to miss practices until they feel like they have recovered and are cleared by the medical staff. Right now, we know more about this virus than we did at the beginning, so that would weigh into my decision.”
What would be your biggest concerns about playing? “My biggest concern about playing would probably be that players could easily spread it to one another because they spend so much time together. Whether they are in the locker room or living in the same quarters, they have to be careful.”
Would you play? Why? “Yes, I would play. As an athlete, taking a year off from playing is detrimental to a career. Although I agree that the health of an individual is the most important, I believe that a fit, healthy athlete would be able to overcome a virus that they come in contact with. As a healthy individual, you are much more likely to avoid complications. Additionally, although soccer is a contact sport, we’re playing outside in the open air. College athletes aren’t on the front lines; they are playing a sport. During a time like this, exercising and eating healthy is critical, which is something that you learn as an athlete and applies to your entire life. This virus is real and very contagious. Therefore, good hygiene is important and precautions must be taken, but I don’t believe the world needs to be shut down over this. Personally, I have learned not to fear anything except God because I know that He is in control.”
Former baseball player
What factors would weigh into your decision to play? “A major factor I’d have to consider would be my teammates. We’re seeing teams in Major League Baseball get hit hard by the virus. Granted we don’t know if this is because of one bad apple, but that would be a major concern. One person going out in a large crowd and getting the virus could mess it up for all of us.”
What would be your biggest concerns about playing? “I’m constantly around my family, which includes my at-risk grandma, and they would have to trust not only me but my teammates.”
Would you play? Why? “Of course I’d play! Watching sports slowly come back gives people hope. And to give Wildcat fans something to watch and look forward to would be all I need! Do I have any eligibility left?”
Former basketball player
What factors would weigh into your decision to play? “The strength of the testing protocols, and the volume of tests first and foremost. The NBA has been very successful with daily environment. Also, what the environment is like outside of our respective sport—where would we be living, who would be on campus...etc. Lastly, if there is a vaccine out or coming soon. This would make me a ton more comfortable with competing.”
What would be your biggest concerns about playing? “My biggest concern would be having to trust who I am competing with and against because I can’t control what they choose to do and where they choose to go outside of our practices/games.”
Would you play? Why? “If there were proper protocols in place I would love to play, but I think it would be very difficult to replicate what the NBA has been doing because of how many different teams there are in college sports. Especially considering that the professional sports not using the bubble tactic are not going very well.”
Former softball player
What factors would weigh into your decision to play? “We would have to consider keeping smaller groups, social distancing, traveling to play schools in states that require quarantine of two weeks, asymptomatic spread and doing regular health check-ins.”
What would be your biggest concerns about playing? “My biggest concerns would be managing asymptomatic spread, doing full team stuff (practices, meals, workouts etc.) and what would happen if someone did get the virus. Like how would that player/the team be affected? Would the person quarantine, the team quarantine or would the season be cancelled?”
Would you play? Why? “Yes I would play if my coaches decided to. Personally I do not have any contact with anyone at-risk, so asymptomatic spread doesn’t worry me. While I was playing I was living with other teammates and we were all very healthy.”