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Football players on the line.

Research offers advice and strategies for college athletics threatened by a crisis like the pandemic

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Media Contact: Bailey Stacy | Marketing and Communications, Coordinator | 405-744-2700 | bailey.stacy@okstate.edu

Valentino Daltoso is an offensive lineman, a position that rarely receives any recognition except when they’ve done something wrong. But a year ago Daltoso, who played on the University of California football team in Berkeley, was very much in the spotlight when he joined 10 other players in signing a letter in which a group of Pac-12 Conference football players threatened to boycott the 2020 season because of their concerns with the risks COVID-19 posed to their health.

“The coronavirus has put a spotlight on a lot of the injustices in college athletics,” Daltoso told Sports Illustrated. “The way to affect change and the way to get your voice heard is to affect the bottom line. Our power as players comes from being together. The only way to do this is to do something collectively.”

Daltoso and other Pac-12 student athletes threatened to boycott preseason training camps and not play football games during the 2020 season because of concerns with how the pandemic was being handled. The players, in a letter to then Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, said they were putting their health at risk and put together a list of demands regarding health and safety practices.

Eventually, despite the continued escalation of the pandemic throughout the fall football season, the Pac-12 players — and most others across the country (a few elected to opt out of the season while being able to keep their scholarships) — joined their teams for the 2020 season.

But as student athletes began testing positive for the virus and some schools had to shut down their facilities, it became apparent to Oklahoma State University assistant professor John Holden and his co-authors that there were more questions than answers involving all parties, including athletic department administrators, coaches and especially college athletes.

“In writing this paper, we were looking broadly at what could be done should a future pandemic ever come about to protect athletes,” said Holden, who wrote “Exploring College Sports in the Time of COVID-19: A Legal, Medical, and Ethical Analysis” with co-authors Marc Edelman, professor at Baruch College; Thomas Baker, associate professor of sports management and policy at the University of Georgia; and Andrew G. Shuman, associate professor of otolaryngology at the University of Michigan Health.

“Part of this stems from issues surrounding NCAA governance more broadly and athletes’ rights and their ability as a college athlete to say, ‘No, I don’t want to do that,’” Holden said. “I think the pandemic really highlighted some of these issues within college sports.”

Adopting a true interdisciplinary approach to the question of how and when to return to playing, Holden and his co-authors expressed their concerns regarding how NCAA members approached the legal and ethical issues surrounding the offering of intercollegiate sports during a pandemic and propose best practices for colleges to determine when and how to resume.

Their recommendations for if the football season, or any sports season, may face cancellation in the future include:

  • Ensure athletes have the ability to make informed decisions about choosing to participate.
  • Allow athletes the rights to determine their futures and alter their choices during a pandemic (for example, transfer to another college that is closer to family).
  • Provide athletes with greater representation.

“I think our major conclusion was that at the time we probably brought athletes back to campus prematurely,” Holden said. “Things ended up working out for the most part, but we still have no idea about the long-term consequences. But things could have gone very badly, and in the end it didn’t, and much of what didn’t go wrong was a result of the NCAA, conferences and schools adopting some of the things that we recommended in the paper, such as allowing players to sit out [the season] without penalty, easing transfer requirements, improving testing, bringing back all athletes at one time instead of just favoring revenue-generating athletes.”

Holden says communication with all involved — health care professionals, college administrators and athletes — is the best strategy when college athletics are threatened.

“Talking to the athletes is the biggest thing,” he said. “Get the athletes’ input before deciding how to move forward. That was the major issue, and it threatened to derail the entire football season before the Pac-12 athletes basically came out and said, ‘We don’t have enough information. We want these things before we move forward.’ It seems like there was a real tipping point about to happen before their concerns got addressed.

“We’re talking about adults here. Often, college athletes get talked about like they’re children, and they aren’t. They’re adults, so bring them into the conversation and give them a voice in the process.”


Story By: Terry Tush | terry.tush@okstate.edu 

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