Aria Gerson: Outbreak or not, Michigan is missing transparency

Tuesday, December 1, 2020 - 8:28pm

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh without a mask on the sideline at Michigan Stadium.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh without a mask on the sideline at Michigan Stadium. Buy this photo
Alec Cohen/Daily

Jim Harbaugh gave a 19-minute press conference Monday, shortly after the program announced workouts would be virtual that day due to an “increased number” of presumptive positive tests for coronavirus.

Reporters ran the gamut of questions on the situation — would the game against Maryland be played? How many players tested positive? Will the team be forced to shut down? One reporter asked what an “increased number” of presumptive positives meant.

That’s an increased number from zero, it was more than one, it was a few,” Harbaugh said. “So it was increased.”

Thanks for the insight, Jim.

Harbaugh was asked three times if he thought there would be a game Saturday against Maryland — a Senior Day matchup that would give Michigan one last shot at a home win. Instead of giving any kind of answer, he threw around “abundance of caution” and “day-to-day.”

“Like I said, its the same as, it’s a very proactive culture that’s been set here,” he said. “And it is literally day to day and the protocols in place are all followed and then some and I felt like it was out of that kind of precaution to do things virtually today.”

The entire press conference felt like an exercise in regurgitating a press release. Reporters were left wondering why they showed up at all. And even taking Harbaugh at his word that the team followed all protocols, it’s the lack of transparency from within the program that’s particularly galling.

Last Friday, Ohio State canceled its game against Illinois the day before it was set to be played. The next morning, coach Ryan Day, athletic director Gene Smith and a team doctor appeared on a conference call with the media. They didn’t answer every question, either, but they did say that more than 7.5% of team personnel had tested positive and although the Buckeyes weren’t at the mandated shutdown threshold, they chose to call off the game. They explained that the team had few cases before this week and walked reporters through their adjusted practice schedule when positives started popping up.

Harbaugh didn’t say any of that. And it’s worth noting that he wasn’t the only one who made this decision — athletic director Warde Manuel wasn’t even made available. Neither was Darryl Conway or Sami Rifat, the athletic department official and doctor instrumental in the choice to shut down.

When asked if the Wolverines would have hit either of the Big Ten’s shutdown thresholds if the presumptive positive tests were confirmed, he instead said that, “We’re gonna follow all protocols and we are awaiting the results of the confirmatory tests.”

This isn’t a new problem from Harbaugh. In September, he appeared at a “we want to play” protest. I asked him whether he would be comfortable playing a team that had an outbreak. He stared at me until I repeated the question, then said, “Like I just said, I really, I don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the world. I know what we’re doing.”

At the time, Harbaugh bragged that his team hadn’t had a positive test since July. “I know what we’re doing” was a way of saying that he was confident in his team’s ability to follow protocols regardless of what else happened — to borrow his now-infamous phrase, “stay positive, test negative.”

Asked a similar question about playing a team with an outbreak, fifth-year senior defensive lineman Carlo Kemp said he would feel comfortable playing as long as everyone on the field tested negative. But that would’ve been a great answer for the head coach to provide, especially now that Michigan declined to make players available to reporters on either Monday or Tuesday.

Before the Minnesota game, I asked another question of Harbaugh: Had anyone on the team tested positive since that protest? Harbaugh said there had been positive tests, but he didn’t mention how many or when. On Monday, when asked if anyone had presumptively tested positive “before Saturday,” Harbaugh answered with a simple yes, but from the wording it wasn’t clear if he meant they had tested positive right before the game, earlier in the week or even some prior time in the season.

(Any player who tests positive before a game is required to be held out, and Harbaugh did indicate that at least one player has been held out of a game for a positive test, though he did not say when.)

Come Tuesday morning, multiple sources reported that a large number of Monday’s tests were false positives and that Michigan was optimistic about the game. Then the program canceled media availability.

If the tests were false positives, why wasn’t Harbaugh there to tell us that? Or Warde Manuel? Or at this point, really anyone?

Instead, all we got was this statement: “Out of an abundance of caution, we will again hold all team activities in a virtual format today. We will continue to follow the prevention protocols and recommendations of our medical professionals and the health department, and do everything to keep our focus on protecting the health, safety and welfare of our student-athletes and staff.”

With next to no information from the program, speculation has abounded. People on Twitter wondered who had missed Saturday’s game and if they had tested positive. During the College Football Playoff rankings show, Kirk Herbstreit suggested that Michigan might, essentially, play up an outbreak to avoid getting blown out by Ohio State. (He later apologized for the comments.) Let’s be clear: this type of speculation isn’t appropriate from anyone, for any reason. But the program could’ve easily avoided this.

A deadly pandemic isn’t the time for gamesmanship. This is a public health crisis, and football players don’t live in a bubble. It’s the Wolverines’ responsibility to the Ann Arbor community to make sure any potential outbreak doesn’t spread — and that they figure out how it started so it doesn’t happen again.

If Michigan has a growing outbreak, it should shut things down and let us know, then focus on getting back for Ohio State. If the Wolverines had a scare of false positives, they should tell us that too. The Buckeyes laid out the blueprint for informing the public about how they made their decisions — without compromising privacy or giving up a game advantage. 

They don’t need to tell us who tested positive. All we want to know is how many, and when, and whether there will be a game on Saturday. We want to know how these decisions are being made. We want to know whether there was a breakdown in Michigan’s protocols or if their potential outbreak was just bad luck.

Instead, all we know is that one is more than zero.

Gerson can be reached at amgerson@umich.edu or on Twitter @aria_gerson.


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