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The COVID-19 Athlete | The Complexity of Infection Spread and Understanding Behavior

The return to sport participation that is taking place across our nation brought the hope of a return to normalcy.  Enthusiastic, optimistic, excited—all words to describe how we feel about this return after months of hoping, waiting, planning, more waiting and hoping, and finally, with revised plans, our athletes have returned to the fields, gyms, weight rooms and training rooms.  Yes, we have a return to sport participation.  Finally, all is normal in our world.

But this is not the old normal—this is the new normal—and this new normal is not what we expected.  At college campuses across the nation athletes are back.  They are back doing what they love—training, competing, and preparing for the upcoming season.  They are with their teammates and coaches, building the foundation for success and COVID-19 is interfering with the traditional methods to which they are accustomed. This daily preparation includes new requirements in behaviors, while training and in everyday life, and these are not exclusive of each other. 

Athletes are following the protocols on campus—daily screening, social distancing, proper personal and group hygiene, training in small group pods—and they are regularly tested for COVID-19.  It is the behavior away from training that poses the greatest risk to sport, and that is not exclusive to the athletes and coaches.  Society at large plays a role in the ability to successfully return to sport.  Rising infection rates, non-compliance with social distancing, wearing facemasks, and avoiding large gatherings affects the ability for us to control the spread of infection and allow athletes to return to sport. 

And now this new normal is hitting us hard, really hard.  Despite the preparation, screening, sanitizing and carefully monitored new training protocols the harsh reality of the new normal is a simple statement uttered by too many college athletes on campuses big and small across the entire nation.

            “Sorry Coach, I let you down.  I tested positive” 

The numbers of confirmed positive athletes seems ridiculously high considering the protocols and guidelines in place, and this is directly attributable to societal behavior and circumstances outside of the athletic environment.  We have to ask ourselves if it is the athlete that let us down or, did we fail and let the athlete down.  Herein lies the ethical dilemma before us:  do we expect more from our athletes then we do of ourselves? 

We need to take a look at our individual situations in our local communities.  This vision must have a new lens to allow us to see with clarity what might be currently blurred by COVID-19 when we look at what is occurring on our campuses across the nation.  With this new lens we need to ask and honestly answer the following questions:     

  • Is it reasonable, when there are high infection rates in the communities, that we should even expect athletes and college students can behave in a way to remain free of COVID-19?
  • Is the risk of infection too high for sport participation?
  • Can athletes who apply and engage in appropriate and safe COVID-19 guidelines be expected to remain free of the virus?
  • When we ask athletes to participate now in the new normal are we really looking out for their health, wellness and safety?

Is it possible that the answer to all of the questions above starts with a simple statement to be shared with all athletes who test positive—It’s not all your fault.

It’s not all your fault:  Our expectations are too high if we expect the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 within our athletes to be significantly lower than those of the community. 

It’s not all your fault:  In a community with high infection rates it is unreasonable to expect college athletes and students to be infection free.

It’s not all your fault:  This is not the culture we want in our athletic programs, a culture where your safety can be negatively impacted.

Sorry athletes, we let you down

Finally, we all have a responsibility to help protect athlete health, wellness, and safety.  Ultimately, we must use that new lens and take another look.  What we are seeing is this—perhaps it is not the sport participation itself that presents the greatest risk, instead, the behaviors and interactions that society models away from the courts and fields that present the greatest risk to our athletes. It is not the interactions in the controlled environment of campus facilities that increase athlete risk.  It is, instead, the uncontrolled environment away from campus. 

We need to adjust our expectations and refocus.  We understand everybody is at the same risk when we all model the same behaviors.  Athletes remain enthusiastic, optimistic, and excited to return to sport.  Athletes are training for the return to participation and eventually competition.  The question is simply this: will we adjust our actions and our expectations to ensure an athlete’s health, wellness, and safety?  Even with doing that it is possible the risk remains too great, but we will modify the risk as best we can.  We will have normalcy, albeit a new normal.  

The view we would like to see is sport participation that is free of COVID-19 and that is safe.  Until we get to that point, we all need to participate in the societal behaviors that will allow for our athletes to compete in the sports we love.  Our athletes will return to sport participation when we all realize the roles we play in helping them get there. 

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