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Friday, September 24, 2021

The Editorial Board calls on UC Davis Athletics to withdraw from high-contact gameplay this season

As COVID-19 death counts continue to rise, a strict following of COVID-19 guidelines is necessary to ensure the health and safety of student-athletes

As vaccinations increase and the U.S. gradually inches toward herd immunity, the return to normal life may seem in sight. In reality, however, the battle against COVID-19 is far from over. On Monday, the U.S. surpassed 500,000 known coronavirus-related deaths. As the latest statistics illustrate, properly following COVID-19 safety guidelines remains of paramount importance. 

This Monday, UC Davis student-athletes went to practice; athletes from softball, equestrian, tennis, track, basketball, lacrosse, water polo, beach volleyball and baseball geared up for games later in the week. With the ensuing pandemic and rise of COVID-19 deaths, the Editorial Board questions UC Davis Athletics’ decision to resume gameplay for certain teams, especially those requiring high contact.

The Editorial Board acknowledges the measures being taken to ensure the health and safety of student-athletes, such as daily self-health evaluations, frequent testing and vigorous cleaning of shared equipment. All league institutions are required to follow medical and testing protocols as detailed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and by federal, state, local and conference guidelines. Despite these measures, the Editorial Board believes gameplay poses a substantial risk for student-athletes. 

According to the CDC’s guidelines for playing sports, players should stay at least six feet away from other players when possible. In high-contact gameplay like football and basketball, keeping a two arms length distance from other players at all times is impossible. 

The CDC also recommends wearing a mask at all times, but NCAA does not require all sports to wear masks during games, as it could “present a physical challenge to the student-athlete during activities when there is contact to the head or face, strenuous exercise is involved, or the mask is likely to get wet.” Masks are not effective at helping prevent the transmission of COVID-19 droplets unless they are worn at all times. If masks cannot be safely worn during gameplay, then simply, games should not be occurring, especially with high-contact sports.

Additionally, limiting the amount of shared equipment is recommended by the CDC, as well as the proper cleaning of equipment and frequently-touched surfaces. In sports that share balls, like volleyball and football, the chances for disease transmission increase. 

In terms of game attendance, the Editorial Board appreciates UC Davis Athletics’ decision to exclude fans. In other areas of the U.S., fans can attend college sports games in person following the poor examples set by professional sports. For the 2020 season, Auburn’s football stadium hosted up to 20,364 fans each game; the Super Bowl earlier this month hosted 22,000 fans. The NCAA will allow for 25% capacity for all rounds of the men’s basketball tournament and 17% for later stages of the women’s event. In addition to possible issues of gender discrepancy, it is irresponsible to allow that many fans to attend indoor sports games. 

At UC Davis, even though fans are not permitted to attend, hosting athletic games still creates unsafe environments with high potentials for COVID-19 transmission. Players, coaches, athletic trainers, referees and medics are present—reaching numbers much higher than those in a recommended social bubble. Additionally, since COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions differ between states, travel for games places athletes in potentially dangerous situations. 

While gameplay feels irresponsible at this time, the Editorial Board acknowledges the importance of continued practice to ensure athletes stay in shape and are prepared for games when the pandemic subsides. The proper following of COVID-19 safety measures, however, is necessary for the safety of players, coaches and staff, as well as their housemates and families. These safety guidelines should reflect the contact level of the sport, as it is clear further precautions are necessary for high-contact ones.

The Editorial Board has seen some student-athletes’ poor following of safety protocols firsthand, witnessing unmasked individuals on team social media stories and when walking past practice spaces. While athletes have a responsibility to follow guidelines, it is ultimately the responsibility of the athletics department to impose stricter penalties to ensure proper practices. 

The reasons why UC Davis Athletics resumed gameplay remain fairly unclear. The Editorial Board understands the value of sports during this pandemic as a morale booster and a way to find community during this time of isolation, but we believe the health of student-athletes and community members is worth more than those reasons.

When the Editorial Board met with campus leaders for our quarterly interview, we asked why the university is trying to complete the football season given the pandemic situation in California. Chancellor Gary May responded with “Our student-athletes and coaches want to play. That’s the biggest factor. We think that with all the infrastructure and testing we have at UC Davis, we think they can play safely, which is our priority.” 

While some athletes “want to play,” we are sure not all feel this way. Athletes that do not wish to play are cornered in uncomfortable situations, resulting in the possibility of them feeling obligated to participate despite concerns of their safety. Interim Athletics Director Rocko DeLuca said “If our student-athletes want to compete or opt-out, we fully support them,” but many factors may pressure athletes to play, including possible loss of opportunities on the team and peer pressure from teammates. To ease the stress of student-athletes during this pandemic, the only solution is for UC Davis to withdraw from gameplay in all high-contact NCAA events. 

This pandemic has taken away events that spark joy for everyone. Whether those events are concerts, dine-in restaurants, vacations or sports games, we all “want” to go back to a time when we could enjoy them. But as we get closer to minimizing the threat of this virus, now is not a time for sports games, or any events that have a high potential for spreading the virus. For a university that has recently been praised for being a leader during this pandemic, the Editorial Board expects more from the athletics department. 

Written by: The Editorial Board

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