In the wake of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ directive to shut down all Michigan athletic department activities late Saturday night due to detection of the B.1.1.7 COVID-19 strain, Christian Hubaker began reaching out to fellow student-athletes. Hubaker, a senior on the track and field and cross-country teams, felt especially aggrieved by the decision, as it prevents the Wolverines from competing in this week’s Big Ten Cross Country Championships. In turn, that will leave Michigan athletes ineligible for NCAA Championships.
The source of Hubaker’s frustration, though, was a sense that the MDHHS directive was poorly aimed.
“It’s foolish to think that the variant isn’t gonna be around in two weeks and it’s probably gonna be a bigger deal,” Hubaker told The Daily. “Because we’re the only sector of the community that’s being shut down right now. And we’re, in my opinion, the safest and have the strictest guidelines of anyone else in the community.
“So if we had it, the community definitely has it. And we’re worried, a lot of us are worried … and we’ve heard this two-week period thrown around a lot before and we’re worried that this isn’t gonna be a two-week thing.”
As soon as Hubaker began reaching out to athletes from other programs, he realized he wasn’t alone. Hubaker said he and Joe Pace, a sixth-year utility player on the baseball team, were the leaders in crafting the statement and petition that were eventually posted to social media Monday afternoon. The letter, though, was signed off by a “coalition of student-athletes,” which Hubaker said includes athletes from nearly every program on campus, including the men’s basketball and football programs.
“We’ve been trying to have it be a big, collaborative effort because we really want to have a unified voice out there between all athletes,” Hubaker said. As of late Monday afternoon, that goal had succeeded, with the petition receiving over 2,880 signatures in just six hours. Pace said that over 100 athletes were in a GroupMe to help collaborate on the petition.
Additionally, Pace said that athletic director Warde Manuel and the rest of the administration “support us voicing our opinion and standing up for what we believe in.”
The athletes in charge of creating the petition stopped short of involving coaches, who Hubaker acknowledged are in a “tricky spot” as the bridge between athletes and the athletic department. Hockey coach Mel Pearson said on Monday that his “initial reaction (to the shutdown) was a little bit of shock, a little bit of surprise, a little bit of disappointment, a little bit of anger. Our players have done a great job. We’ve been negative since early July.”
That’s a sense shared by teams who have been affected by the shutdown.
“We heard about the new strain and they gave us all the information,” Pace told The Daily. “And the initial thought process is, OK, (most teams) on the campus have no COVID cases, how does this make any sense?”
As of Saturday night, there were no positive tests on the men’s basketball, women’s basketball or hockey teams. Hubaker, meanwhile, said that the cross-country program has had one positive case since returning to campus in the fall. The case occurred approximately two weeks ago and was not the B.1.1.7 strain. The athlete who tested positive was quarantined and no other members of the team tested positive.
Also as of Saturday night, there were five known cases and 15 presumed positive cases of the B.1.1.7. strain in the athletic department. Michigan chief medical executive Joneigh Khaldun said in a Monday press conference that there were 13 known cases of the variant in Washtenaw County.
Because cases of the B.1.1.7 variant have been limited to a handful of programs, athletes and coaches alike have struggled to come to grips with the shutdown being enacted throughout the athletic department.
“The consistency of the mandate to have a quarantine when we’ve all been testing daily and the team was testing negative, people feel like it hasn’t been a consistent application when it’s only Michigan athletics that’s chosen to kind of be in this position,” volleyball coach Mark Rosen told The Daily. Currently, he said, his program does not have any cases of COVID-19. “So I think there’s frustration and disappointment in our coaches right now.”
Paul Juda, a sophomore on the men’s gymnastics team, shares Rosen’s frustration. Juda was among a group of Wolverines’ gymnasts in Lincoln for a meet with Nebraska that was scheduled for Sunday when he found out about the shutdown. Due to the requirement that athletes enter a two-week quarantine as soon as possible, he and his teammates had to abandon plans to return to Michigan on commercial flights, instead taking an 11-hour bus ride back to campus.
“Not something our team was very happy about knowing our team is completely COVID free so that wasn’t fun at all,” Juda told The Daily, adding that neither the men’s nor women’s gymnastics teams have had any positive COVID-19 tests of any variant in the past two weeks.
“Given the fact that it is not only up to 50% more contagious, and the fact that it’s already here … I don’t see (the shutdown) not being extended past two weeks,” Juda said.
In light of that concern, the primary goal for the coalition of student-athletes is now for the two-week mandate to be revisited.
“We think that on a team-by-team basis, if there are teams that have had no contact with the variant strand, if there are teams that have all healthy people right now, then they should be allowed to resume athletic activity immediately,” Hubaker said. “If that doesn’t happen, we’re mostly looking to get more transparency from the health department to athletes. Because as these things continue to be ruled out, these requirements of us, and as they have been all year, we haven’t had a good line of communication with the health department.”
Ethan Sears and Lane Kizziah contributed to the reporting of this story.
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