On Thursday afternoon, just one day after he went viral for saying, “There’s no expert view right now that I’m aware of that sports is going to make (COVID-19) worse,” Jim Harbaugh sat down for a Zoom call with all of his players’ parents.
It was far away from the spotlight, in an environment that better suits the Michigan coach. No quotes from that Zoom will gain virality or even be posted on the internet. But to the parents of Wolverines’ players, this is the Harbaugh that matters.
This Harbaugh was answering a list of their questions — 22 of them to be precise, all focusing on how Michigan was dealing with college football’s return to play amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was a list borne out of concern back in late May, when the NCAA announced it would allow athletes to return to campus for voluntary workouts. At the time, something didn’t sit right with Chris and Mya Hinton, the parents of Michigan defensive lineman Chris Hinton Jr.
As they looked at the guidelines put in place by all 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs and 10 FBS conferences, they realized there was no consistency. “No guidance, there was no protocol that schools had to adhere to,” Chris Sr. told The Daily. “They just gave the date and said, ‘Have at it.’ ”
So the Hintons started reaching out to parents of other college football players and realized they weren’t alone in their concern. After getting feedback from some of those parents, they founded the Facebook group, College Football Parents 24/7. Just over a month later, it has 1,558 members and counting.
Before the Hintons air their grievances, they want you to know something. They are rabid college football fans. Their other son, Myles, is a freshman offensive lineman at Stanford. Chris Sr. starred at Northwestern in the 1980s before his All-Pro NFL career. So they want a college football season more than just about anyone.
“We just want it to be done right and safely,” Chris said. “We want our sons to be safe, as any other parent would want.”
At Michigan, that’s a feeling that Harbaugh has cultivated throughout the past five months.
Even though the NCAA is permitting full practices beginning Monday, Michigan’s players will continue training in groups of eight, as they have since returning to campus. The groups are consistent day-to-day and are designed to partner players with their closest friends so as to minimize contact between groups out of training.
Of course, getting to a season would require the full team to practice together as normal. To ensure that next step can be executed safety, Michigan has implemented a robust testing system, as well as exploring innovative solutions such as bands that players can wear to help with contact tracing and avoid a large-scale breakout.
Perhaps most encouraging to the Hintons, though, is how these decisions came about. While the program comes from Michigan’s own medical experts, Harbaugh has valued parents’ opinions from the beginning, sending out a survey before players returned to campus so that the team could implement the protocols parents wanted to see.
“It was refreshing because from day one, we feel like Michigan has done a good job with dealing with COVID the best they can with the knowledge that’s available,” Mya said. “There’s so much unknown with the science, but they’re doing everything they can.”
It’s a stark contrast, Mya says, from some other schools across the country, particularly in the SEC. One parent in College Football Parents 24/7 has a son playing at Notre Dame — a school with strict protocols in place — and expressed concern when she found out that Arkansas, the Fighting Irish’s scheduled Week 2 opponent, was only testing if players showed symptoms.
In order to avoid situations such as that one, many parents have lobbied for teams to exclusively play conference games, a measure that enables more consistent protocols to be in place between opponents. Earlier this week, the Big Ten became the first conference to heed that advice.
“The idea that now, it’s conference-only play, you don’t have to worry about a school that’s upholding the same standards that you are,” Chris said. “And that was one of the things that we talked about early was the lack of consistency from school to school, to know that, say, Wisconsin is doing the same thing that you’re doing.”
But while the Hintons support the measures Michigan and the Big Ten have put in place, they — and other parents — remain concerned, with cases on the rise across the country.
“It’s scary to think that football would be ramping it up as cases are going up,” Chris said. “Typically an epidemiologist would say cases are spiking so we need to distance more, and we’re doing the opposite.”
With the scheduled start of football season less than two months away, that’s a daunting thought no matter what guidelines are in place.