Minnesota football is back at it again Friday night and we’re all on pins and needles, waiting to see if the Gophers have a kicking game — or an offensive line, or a secondary.
The Gophers had a large handful of key players miss last weekend’s Big Ten opener against Michigan, a significant turn of events in a 49-24 loss at TCF Bank Stadium that ushered in an abbreviated, tardy season of football in the time of COVID-19.
Not that the novel coronavirus had anything to do with any of those absences; let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Certainly, if the University of Minnesota football team were battling an outbreak, we would know.
COVID-19 has killed nearly 230,000 Americans since February, and cases in Minnesota are at an all-time high. The Midwest is becoming swamped, and Wisconsin canceled Saturday’s game against Nebraska because of positive tests inside its program.
Surely, if the virus were infecting a significant portion of Minnesota’s favorite college football team, it would be public information.
“I know the number,” head coach P.J. Fleck said before last week’s game. “I’m just not going to tell you the number.”
Oh, well, shoot. None of our business again, although it must be noted that Fleck was willing to use COVID to explain why the Gophers didn’t have a player who could punt or kick off a tee last Saturday.
“I’m not going to get into specifics into why they missed the game; you can probably imagine,” he said afterward. “It kind of hit the specialists pretty hard, and it hit them at different times.”
We can safely assuming it wasn’t a wave of hamstring injuries, but who really knows? It’s that HIPAA thing again, the one college coaches have been using to hide injuries since the medical privacy law was enacted in 1996. And apart from the head coach essentially telling us his kickers have/had COVID, it makes some sense.
We don’t need to know the intimate details of a student-athlete’s medical condition; not if that player doesn’t want it out there. But let’s not pretend missing a game with COVID is the same as missing one with a groin pull. We’re not all in danger of becoming fatally ill with groin pulls.
“In my estimation, it is always better to be transparent — at the aggregate level — of COVID-19 infection rates for almost any circumstance,” Karl Minges, chair of the New Haven University’s Department of Health Administration & Policy, said this week.
The university last released testing results among student-athletes on Oct. 1, when it announced the September results: 2,183 tests, 55 positive, a 2.5-percent positivity rate. It is not broken down by sport. That’s “because of privacy and potentially being able to identify an individual,” an athletics department spokesperson said in an email.
In other words, if the number of football players that tested positive for COVID were released, we could Nancy Drew it if so inclined. Then again, as Minges noted, “That very same individual could have the flu, stomach bug or other ailment, or be disqualified from participating for academic reasons just the same.”
The Big Ten didn’t reply to requests for comment this week.
The University of Iowa doesn’t break down its testing data by sport, either, but it releases testing results weekly. We can probably expect Minnesota’s next report early next week, well into a new surge that included more than 80,000 new U.S. cases on Oct. 24, a single-day record. More transparency is required.
This isn’t spy vs. spy. It’s not about competitive advantage or disadvantage. These student-athletes aren’t likely to become fatally ill, but they are sick and threatened with long-lasting health issues, and could give it to someone else. More transparency is required.
That’s the deal Big Ten teams made when the conference decided to play football during the worst global pandemic since 1918.