Behind the scenes of the MAC's return to football

Like the Big Ten and Pac-12, the MAC has a testing partnership, although the conference is testing a minimum of four times per week rather than daily

The MAC’s decision to become the first FBS conference to postpone fall sports was preceded by nearly 40 percent of Kent State’s fall-sport athletes indicating that they were more likely to opt out of the season than play and one Northern Illinois administrator expressing that her biggest concern was the amount of money the school could be on the hook for if one of its athletes contracted COVID-19.

After the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Mountain West announced they were proceeding with a fall football season – after each had come to the same initial conclusion as the MAC and had postponed fall sports – the MAC was left as the last FBS conference to announce that it would play football this fall.

Based on reporting over the last two months, here’s what the MAC’s return to play has looked like, including details on the conference’s partnership for its COVID-19 testing, the parent of an all-conference player emailing a MAC university president to urge him to vote against playing football, and one MAC school’s travel recommendations that its football players don’t attend in-person classes the week after a road game, which means its athletes could potentially lose 10 of the final 14 days of in-person classes for the fall semester.

With a shared geographic footprint, the Big Ten’s decision turned attention to the MAC

Less than an hour after the Big Ten announced it would proceed with a fall football season on Sept. 16, Western Michigan Athletic Director Kathy Beauregard and football coach Tim Lester were forwarded an email from a reader of the suburban Chicago newspaper The Daily Herald, which had sent its readers an alert with the subject line of “Big Ten changes course, aims for October start to football.”

The emailer added two words – “MAC TOO?????????” – in large, bold font, with – count ‘em – nine question marks.

Yes, the MAC, too, would later announce its return to the gridiron.

As reported in last week’s newsletter about the what happened behind the scenes during Big Ten’s return, just as Ohio State coach Ryan Day pointed to the ACC in a statement he released on Twitter in September – one that stated “Our players want to know: why can’t they play?” – the Big Ten’s return was then used as a catalyst for other fan bases whose conferences hadn’t yet announced their plans for a fall football season.

A short time after Western Michigan administrators got that all-caps email, on the other side of the state, Eastern Michigan President Dr. James Smith received an email from a woman who wrote, “High schools and the big 10 brought football back. Please let EMU football come back!”

The state of football in the MAC’s geographic footprint had reached the point where Bowling Green High School had reached out to Bowling Green State University about the former playing football games at the latter’s stadium.

Preparing for his team’s home attendance to be limited to 20-percent capacity, or 550 fans, Bowling Green High School Athletic Director and Head Football Coach Dirk Conner contacted a Bowling Green State University employee about arranging a financial agreement to allow the high school to play any of its four regular-season home games at the university.

Bowling Green – the university – was also prepared to potentially host Ohio High School Athletic Association playoff games, too.

By 1 p.m. ET on the day of the Big Ten’s return-to-play announcement, MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher had reached out to every MAC athletic director, advising them that the conference office was going to schedule a call for every head coach, two football players per school and members of the MAC’s medical advisory group.

“The purpose of the call will be to discuss COVID-19 issues related to football,” Steinbrecher wrote.

That same day, Bowling Green Deputy Athletic Director Kit Hughes emailed Athletic Director Bob Moosbrugger an email that was part of an email thread from August regarding an article published by The Athletic about the presentation that Pac-12 football coaches had been shown in August prior to the conference’s decision to postpone all sports. Moosbrugger had previously shared the article, which addressed the increasing concern in the Pac-12 about potential cardiac complications from COVID-19 and the lack of available point-of-care testing, with his staff after Steinbrecher sent it to the MAC’s presidents and ADs.

“Pretty thought provoking,” Hughes wrote, “to read this article a month later and in the context of today’s announcement.”

The mother of an all-conference player asked a MAC president to vote against playing

On Sept. 24, Dana Stuart, the mother of Central Michigan defensive lineman Robi Stuart, who was a Third Team All-MAC honoree last season, emailed Central Michigan President Robert Davies.

“By now, I must not need to introduce myself,” she wrote to Davies. “And maybe you’re thinking ‘ugh, that crazy [redacted] mom again!’ Please know I’m just a mother who is concerned for my son’s safety and CMU as a whole. So when you vote Friday, I am hoping with you (sic) vote with this in mind.”

Dana Stuart, a Central Michigan alum, then listed 12 sentences, each of which started with “Vote for” and ended with “which is not playing [redacted].” Given the length of the two redactions made at the end of each sentence, it appears the phrase may have been “which is not playing fall football.”

Stuart asked that Davies vote for the “best protection” of health and safety, Central Michigan’s athletic budget, in-person classes and the residents of Mount Pleasant, Michigan, among other considerations.

“When everything is said and done, if it was truly safe to play [redacted] ALL [redacted] sports would be reinstated,” Stuart wrote. “Please do not make our [redacted] the sacrificial fodder to satisfy those who are bored, who deny the risk of COVID, who want entertainment, or have self serving agendas.”

In response to Stuart, Davies wrote, in part, “There have been major advances in testing which raise the possibility of playing; however, there are still questions/concerns that must be answered and addressed – all of which must be done soon because then ‘inaction becomes the decision’ and I do not support that process.”

Davies explained that since the NCAA moved the fall-sport championships to the spring, “these sports will need to compete in that season,” addressing Stuart’s concern that the MAC might bring back football, but not the rest of the university’s fall sports.

The same day that Stuart emailed Davies about voting against a fall football season, Dr. Douglas Neckers, who’s a McMaster Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green, emailed Bowling Green President Rodney Rogers, writing in part, “It’s my humble opinion (and one in which I agree with the Athletic Director at Northern Illinois) restarting football at this point would be a death sentence for some number of the players.”

Neckers said he’s in the process of writing a book about the pandemic.

“Football is a sport that can be left in abeyance until we know what we’re actually dealing with,” Neckers wrote. His full email is below.

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“There has been very extensive discussion about this issue,” Rogers wrote in his response to Neckers. “As you know the MAC continues to consider this issue being advised by a large medical team that has been assembled by the MAC.”

To that, Neckers replied, “I was sure about that but this virus scares me enormously - its (sic) so infectious, but even those with minimal symptoms could/may have long term damage. Be careful! and Stay safe.”

The same day that Stuart expressed concern for her son and that Neckers emphasized the uncertainty surrounding the long-term effects of COVID-19, Steinbrecher, the MAC commissioner, shared a draft of the minimum standards for the conference’s COVID-19 testing protocols that had been unanimously endorsed by the Medical Advisory Group.

Steinbrecher also said in an email to the MAC’s university presidents that he planned to “alert you to a new testing option we will present during the meeting.”

The MAC’s COVID-19 protocols

The MAC’s minimum standards for COVID-19 testing protocols state that football players, coaches, athletic trainers and all other individuals who are on the field for practices and games must undergo daily temperature and symptom checks, plus point of care (POC) antigen testing at least four times per week, including required testing the day before games, starting Oct. 5.

Individuals who test positive must receive a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to confirm the positive diagnosis. Individuals whose positive test is confirmed must be isolated for at least 10 days from the onset of symptoms/positive test result, and at least 24 hours after recovery, which is defined as no longer having a fever without needing fever-reducing medication, as well as having an improvement of respiratory symptoms, such as coughing or a shortness of breath.

Athletes who test positive must also undergo a cardiac evaluation, then they must receive clearance from their school’s medical staff.

Anyone who experiences a severe case of COVID-19 with “documented myocardial injury” must receive a comprehensive evaluation and cannot return to play before three to six months.

If an individual tests positive, the player’s role, such as position or role on the coaching staff, and a summary of their interactions with an opposing team must be included in the information sharing between the team physicians of each school, but the individual’s name cannot be shared unless authorized by the individual or if required by law.

The MAC used the same positivity rate/color scheme protocol as the Big Ten, where a team positivity rate between zero and two percent is labeled “green,” a rate between two and five percent is “orange,” and a rate greater than five percent is “red.” If a team positivity rate reaches “red,” it must stop practice and competition for at least seven days.

Northern Illinois head team physician Dr. Brian Babka wrote in an email to members of the school’s athletic department and administration that he was able to increase the conference’s testing frequency from an NCAA-minimum three times per week to four tests per week.

He said that while the MAC’s testing frequency is less than the Big Ten’s daily testing, he said the MAC was more specific than the Big Ten in defining contact tracing and that doctors in the conference watched game film to prepare for its protocols:

Good morning to all. I am happy with the somewhat final draft going to the university presidents later today for vote tomorrow. I was able to get increased testing frequency above the NCAA standard of three. It is still less than B1G, but with 4x/week we feel we still capture positives and false negatives. We did write flexibility into the document to decrease to 3x/week when we feel we have more control over the potential spread. It also allows us to increase frequency if the testing data/positivity rates increase to an orange/red level. The current proposed testing will look like this based on a game week:

Sat - game

Sun - post game test to immediately initiate contact tracing for any potential positive game exposures (PCR confirmation for positives)

Tues - midweek test (PCR confirmation for positives)

Thurs - pregame test #1 (PCR confirmation for positive)

Fri - pregame test #2 to increase likelihood of detecting previous false negative (PCR confirmation for positive)

We have tailored the cardiac testing to NCAA, American Medical Society of Sports Medicine, and American College of Cardiology standards. At NIU Dr. Stephen has stepped up as our cardiology champion and will assist on these work up, clearance, and return to play decisions.

We got a little more specific than the B1G describing contact tracing. This will be difficult, and we all watched game film in prep of this. The most risk is on our own sidelines. Even the best block is only held for an average of 2 seconds.

Please let me know your thoughts or concerns when you are able to read and review the draft when sent by the MAC. I feel this is a protocol we can accept and defend, and it will provide safety for our student athletes. This will also serve as a very good reference point for the other sports as well.

It’s notable that Babka highlighted a team’s own sideline as the area with the highest risk of exposure. MAC teams will have six scheduled opponents during the regular season, but in terms of preventing positive tests and potential outbreaks, a team’s biggest opponent might be itself and its campus community.

The MAC has a testing partnership with Quest Diagnostics

In a document obtained by Out of Bounds that listed talking points for the conference after it announced the return of fall football, one talking point, which addressed why the MAC didn’t make the decision to play football in August, stated: “In August, the ability to get tests and obtain timely results were not readily available across the conference footprint. Today, we have greater understanding of the virus and have the protocols in place necessary for the student athletes to compete safely.”

On Friday, Sept. 25 – the day the MAC announced a unanimous vote to return to play football – all of the MAC athletic directors were contacted by the conference office, asking if they wanted to opt in or opt out of the conference’s COVID-19 testing program with Quest Diagnostics.

Quest Diagnostics provided the MAC with an official proposal on Sept. 18 and it included a “comprehensive operational management program designed specifically for collegiate and professional sports,” Quest Diagnostics Senior Director of Marketing Stacia Rivello wrote in an email to MAC Deputy Commissioner Bob Gennarelli.

Quest Diagnostics says it has worked with 50 professional sports teams over the last seven years and that it has provided testing to more universities than any other lab.

The lab is “successfully supporting COVID-19 testing programs for the National Basketball Association (NBA), US Open, Professional Boxing, Professional Bull Riding (PBR) and several MLS, MLB, and NHL teams, [which] has uniquely positioned us to service a program of your magnitude,” Rivello wrote.

Out of Bounds learned Ball State, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Kent State and Miami (OH) are among the schools that opted in to the program.

Bowling Green opted in with the provisions that the university could have the option for testing for basketball and hockey, if needed. Bowling Green AD Bob Moosbrugger also asked for a non-performance clause.

“Operationally, the day before game day will be critical for testing so we need to make sure that is done with great thought,” Moosbrugger wrote to the MAC’s Gennarelli. “I know it will.”

Kent State also indicated it would have conversations with Quest Diagnostics about testing other groups, in addition to the football team, such as the band and cheerleaders. “Thanks for your efforts in securing,” Kent State Athletic Director Joel Nielsen wrote to Gennarelli, “this truly was the ‘gamechanger!’”

For perspective on the quantity and price of tests that MAC schools had been buying and paying, respectively, Northern Illinois Chief of Staff to the President Matthew Streb said in an internal email that the university – this is referring to the university at large, not the athletic department – bought 6,000 tests at $80 per test, which Streb said didn’t include the cost of staffing.

That’s $480,000 in tests.

Streb estimated the university would need to buy another 3,000 tests for the school to get through the fall semester, which would be an additional $240,000 at the same price, bringing the university’s potential total to $720,000.

“We also will need to include athletics (both what we’ve done and what will be needed going forward),” he wrote in an email, which could bring the costs for the semester closer to $1 million when you include staffing and the cost of tests for the athletic department.

At the University at Buffalo, the athletic department conducted 1,316 COVID-19 tests, including 677 within the football program, from June 1 to Sept. 25, which was prior to the four-times-per-week testing that started Oct. 5 in accordance with the MAC’s football protocols. If you consider the testing required for a football program with roughly 120 people, that’s about 500 tests per week per school.

November 3 is a mandatory day off for DI athletes, but that doesn’t prevent travel

The opening day of MAC football is Wednesday, Nov. 4 – a day after Nov. 3, Election Day. All 12 teams will be in action that Wednesday and five of the six games will feature teams from two different states. In September, the NCAA Division I Council announced that DI athletes will not practice or compete, or participate in any countable athletically related activities (CARA), on the first Tuesday after Nov. 3 in order to “provide a day each year dedicated to increasing opportunities for Division I athletes to participate in civic engagement.”

CARA includes activities like team meetings, watching film and walkthroughs, but on a day intended for voting and community service, travel is allowed.

When the MAC preseason and regular season schedules were announced, Northern Illinois Executive Associate Athletic Director John Cheney wrote in an email to the MAC’s Gennarelli, “I thought testing and preseason practices begin October 5th? Also if teams play the 4th how do they travel the 3rd on the mandatory off day for voting?”

“School can travel on 11/3 just can’t do a walkthrough,” Gennarelli responded.

Some version of the phrase “it is what it is” was used several times in internal emails in the conference in regards to the MAC’s season starting one day after Election Day.

Here’s what the travel protocols are like at Buffalo

Out of Bounds obtained a document containing Buffalo’s football travel recommendations, which outlined the considerations and protocols necessary for traveling as a safely as possible during a college football road game.

Buffalo must not be out of the state of New York for more than 24 hours for road game and the entire team must be tested the morning after the game. The team must then stay in a “bubble” for the week after returning to campus and players won’t attend in-person classes the week after the road game, according to Buffalo’s Return to Play executive summary.

The Bulls have road games scheduled on Nov. 4, No. 17 and Dec. 5, which means if the university follows its travel recommendations and if “the week” is defined as the seven days following a road game, Buffalo players won’t be able to attend in-person classes from Nov. 5-11 and from Nov. 18-24. After the university’s fall recess from Nov. 25-28, classes at Buffalo resume remotely on Nov. 30 and the last day of classes for the semester is Dec. 11, so there won’t be any students at the university who will be taking in-person classes after the fall recess.

But football players could potentially miss roughly two of the final three weeks of in-person classes due to road games.

In June, the university announced a “modified in-person” learning format with a mix of in-person and online courses, so some classes are already online. Buffalo’s website says, “The amount of in-person instruction possible during the fall will be determined by classroom availability given the need for 6 feet of physical distancing, face coverings, and other health considerations.”

There’s the stuff that you’d expect in the travel recommendations document, like all members of Buffalo’s traveling party being required to wear a mask or face covering when traveling and that members of the traveling party must minimize their time in “crowded settings.”

That’s social distancing and mask wearing 101.

The document also recommended that Buffalo requires all of its travel partners, including hotels, bus companies and airlines, to perform and confirm frequent disinfection of all facilities, rooms and surfaces. The same clause states that the contracts with Buffalo’s travel partners must show that the travel partners have read, understood and agreed to performing the disinfecting to “the greatest extent possible.”

Buses can’t be more than 50-percent full in order to allow for social distancing.

When Buffalo is at a hotel during a road trip, the hotel staff must refrain from cleaning inside the rooms of Buffalo’s traveling party, and hotels must require that their employees wear PPE when interacting with Buffalo players, coaches and staff members. Flight attendants must wear masks and gloves at all times, and any food items must be individually wrapped.

The Bulls will have private rooms for their team meetings and meals, and the rooms must also be large enough for social distancing. The rooms have to have hand sanitizer stations at the entrance, too. When it comes time to eat, athletes must eat at separate times than coaches and staff members, in order to allow for social distancing and keep the meal room from becoming too crowded. Self-service, buffet-style dining is not allowed, and food services with an attendant, who’s socially distanced, is allowed when necessary.

Members of Buffalo’s traveling party can’t eat at any restaurants inside or outside the team hotel during road trips, nor can they use any food delivery services.

What about the rules for home games?

A separate document outlined Buffalo’s game day operational recommendations, which included a proposal to allow a maximum of 250 relatives of Buffalo players, coaches and staff members, but no one is allowed to come from a “Hot State.”

The guests would be seated in a socially distanced arrangement on the west side of the stadium, while very limited concessions – without alcohol – would be made available.

The document said the visiting team wouldn’t be allowed any guests, and neither team would be allowed to have a band, cheerleaders or a spirit squad in attendance. All on-field recognition ceremonies or sponsorship promotions should be eliminated, according to the operational recommendations, with the suggestion that the ceremonies and promotions are instead pre-taped or to be held virtually off the field.

Everyone on the sideline must wear a mask and anyone on the field who’s not competing must do the same. The document recommended limiting both teams to 70 available players who would dress for the game, which is the MAC’s travel roster limit.

On Thursday, the MAC announced that its football teams must play a minimum of three regular-season games in order to be eligible for the conference championship game, which means, theoretically, a team could play for the MAC title after only playing three home games, or three road games, if it goes undefeated.

Those are the parameters for the conference that was the first to postpone its football season and the last to return, a conference that shares a geographic footprint with the Big Ten and compared its medical protocols to its Power Five neighbor but never got the phone call from President Trump that Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren did, and a conference whose stadiums could’ve potentially hosted high school games this fall but not college football.

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“In the original design, the APR was intended to ensure institutions, coaches and staff were focused on two key metrics, namely student-athlete eligibility and retention,” read the letter from the ACC coaches. “At this juncture, nearly twenty years later and with impending transfer waiver legislation expected to be adopted in January 2021, we believe it is incumbent on us to re-evaluate the effectiveness of APR and the two key metrics it was originally designed to address.”

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Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at andrew.wittry@gmail.com or on Twitter.