On Saturday, Jan. 23, the University of Michigan suspended all of its athletic programs after multiple student-athletes tested positive for the new COVID-19 B.1.1.7 variant. The measure allowed them to isolate and track the spread of the variant, and represented a smart, public health-informed decision. Although that may seem like a smart choice, what stands out about the decision is its peculiarity within the broader context of the University’s response to COVID-19. 

First, by the time athletics were paused, there were already five confirmed cases of the new variant in Washtenaw County, all tracing back to one individual within the athletic department, so the University needed to take action before there were more confirmed cases rather than waiting until it spread further. 

Moreover, the decision was not even made until after a mandate from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, something which is indicative of the University’s desire to only pause athletics as a last resort. Throughout the 2020-21 academic year, the University has consistently demonstrated an unwillingness to make science-based decisions, exacerbating the spread of COVID-19 unnecessarily. 

During the fall semester, on Oct. 20, the Washtenaw County Health Department issued a stay-in-place order for undergraduates at the University in order to protect students and the community as a whole from COVID-19. The stay-in-place order allowed students to attend in-person classes and go to work, if working remotely was not an option. 

However, out of “an abundance of caution,” the University decided to impose additional restrictions such as suspending all in-person undergraduate research for the duration of the order, except for seniors working on a thesis, and transitioning most in-person or hybrid classes to a completely virtual format for the rest of the semester. However, there was one notable exception to these increased restrictions: sports. 

The requirements for suspending in-person activities are different for athletics and academics. Football practice was held until several players’ tests came back positive at the end of November — only then was practice paused out of an “abundance of caution.” Conversely, the University administration noted that “the increasing COVID-19 transmission we are seeing is not due to our classrooms and labs,” yet chose to suspend research and transition to virtual classes to purportedly prevent exposure. The University’s decisions were inconsistent and did not prioritize safety in an equitable and scientifically-justified manner.

The University prevented most students from engaging in laboratory work despite the negligible risks of COVID-19 exposure from in-person research. Laboratories are already well-designed to keep researchers safe from pathogens. For example, even before the pandemic, health and safety guidelines dictated that labs should be well-ventilated and kept sanitary in order to protect researchers and avoid contamination. 

To supplement the pre-pandemic safety measures, as an undergraduate researcher, I was required to take an online training course at the beginning of the semester which explained the new requirements such as capacity limits, masks, hand washing, distancing and how these measures protect myself and other lab employees from contracting COVID-19. 

The decision to suspend laboratory research — a valuable part of undergraduate education — was an unnecessary measure rather than a response to greater risk. If suspending lab work was truly necessary, all in-person activities should have been suspended as well, especially the ones that are more dangerous like athletics. 

While activities such as in-person classes and research were restricted in order to prevent viral transmission, football practices and games continued until there were presumptively positive cases a month after the October stay-at-home order was enacted. This is despite the fact that, unlike in-person classes and laboratory research, playing football poses a significant risk of contracting COVID-19. 

Although I appreciate having the opportunity to watch sports, it frustrates me to see a world-renowned research university seemingly make decisions based on money rather than science. According to the University’s restrictions, sports were deemed safe because student-athlete transmission had not been documented. However, during the week that the stay-at-home order was announced, 25 student-athletes tested positive; their methods were clearly not providing enough protection. 

Additionally, U-M student-athletes travel and play teams from different regions around the country, which is the highest-risk component of athletic events during the COVID-19 pandemic. The University claims that they are “committed to protocols that protect the health of our student-athletes.” However, this is hard to believe as there have been repeated cases among student-athletes. 

COVID-19 can cause severe long-term health effects in young adults, such as myocarditis, that could end their athletic careers or even kill them. In addition, the protocols for protecting student-athletes only list testing and cardiac screenings, which are useful for identifying cases and a subset of the potential health effects of COVID-19 but are not a replacement for methods that prevent exposure such as wearing masks and social distancing. 

Despite the known risk of transmission during contact sports, as well as the potentially damaging effects on athletes, the University decided that continuing athletic activities during the stay-in-place order was reasonable. 

The University’s differential treatment of athletics and academics is not rooted in science. It is likely that the real reason to permit sports to continue, while other activities could not, was the monetary incentive. Non-revenue fall sports were postponed, despite the fact that many of these sports are non-contact sports, making them safer due to the ability to distance

Making decisions in the face of a pandemic is not easy. However, if the University is truly dedicated to the well-being of its students — including student-athletes — it should make decisions based on safety and science instead of financial gain. The University’s inconsistent restrictions limit safe educational activities and place athletes in unnecessary danger, the true opposite of an abundance of caution.

Samantha Ratner is a junior in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts and can be reached at samrat@umich.edu.

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