Just four days after the University of Texas at Austin began voluntary summer workouts for the football team, school officials confirmed 13 athletes have tested positive for the new coronavirus.
All 13 players are now self-isolating, while 10 other student-athletes are in self-quarantine and are asymptomatic, according to a Thursday press release. Last week, UT reported two players were self-isolating after testing positive, though no athletes have been identified.
Even as coronavirus cases continue to hit record highs across the state, athletics departments are feeling the pressure to prepare players and stadiums for the fall. Public officials are facilitating the return of fall sports – earlier this month, Gov. Greg Abbott announced college and professional stadiums were allowed to operate at 50% capacity.
After three months of campuses being shuttered to protect students from the coronavirus pandemic, universities have begun giving student athletes clearance to return for voluntary workouts. But that move has quickly brought consequences, as a spate of universities are seeing more players testing positive for COVID-19.
The players who have tested positive at UT-Austin are presumably upperclassmen, whose workouts began Monday. Four players have tested positive for antibodies. In a Wednesday report, athletics director Chris Del Conte said the second group of players, who are underclassmen, are slated to begin workouts June 22. UT athletics officials did not immediately say whether workouts would be suspended.
Del Conte said players were required to conduct testing, physicals and COVID-19 safety training before participating in workouts, which began for the first time Monday since university activities were shut down and students were sent home in March.
"We did have some student-athletes test positive for COVID-19 and are following all of our protocols, policies and procedures for self-isolation, contact tracing and management of those affected," Del Conte wrote. "We will continue to report the number of cases as we receive confirmation and clearance to do so."
At the University of Houston, at least six athletes were confirmed positive last week, after beginning workouts June 1. The university has suspended all workouts, the Houston Chronicle reported.
An unidentified number of student athletes at Texas Tech University also received positive test results earlier this week. And at Texas A&M University, nearly five players have tested positive after returning to campus June 9, though local media reported that number has increased this week.
But athletics officials are still signaling optimism for the fall. In a Wednesday interview, A&M's head football coach Jimbo Fisher said he is anticipating crowds of fans at A&M's first game on Sept. 5.
“I am very encouraged because our governor has opened up outside sports to 50 percent now, I mean this early,” Fisher said. “I expect it’s going to be pretty close to normal.”
At Southern Methodist University, student athletes were required to sign a waiver absolving the university of any liability related to COVID-19 before they began workouts early this week. The waiver, as first reported by the Dallas Morning News, requires athletes to either agree to a list of terms or forgo returning to campus.
The waiver says the decision will not affect eligibility or scholarship status but student athletes may have to file a medical hardship waiver if they decline to return. Five SMU players tested positive earlier this week.
"Our intent in providing the document is to confirm that our student-athletes acknowledge that there is risk associated with co-existing with a pandemic, particularly since they will be operating under our protocols for only a short period of time each day during this voluntary summer workout period," SMU athletics director Rick Hart said in a statement released to NBC-DFW.
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