Mountain West Conference presidents made a widely unpopular decision in August to postpone the fall football season, sacrificing hefty revenue streams at a dozen universities for the sake of student athletes’ health.

As a long-time football fan, I was disappointed about not seeing a talented University of Wyoming Cowboys team play, but impressed that the decision was made for all the right reasons during the coronavirus pandemic.

New UW President Ed Seidel admitted the choice was one all MWC leaders agonized over in a candid interview with the Casper Star-Tribune.

“[COVID-19 is] at a completely unacceptable level in the United States,” Seidel said. “We didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize the lives or the livelihood of any of the students, the fans, the community members and so on.”

Seidel pointed to studies that “showed quite definitely that there was heart damage, in fact, for young adults who were in the age group of the athletes.”

It was a profile in courage by university administrators, but it didn’t stick. Six weeks later, the MWC reversed course and announced it would play an eight-game conference schedule starting Oct. 24. 

When UW plays its first home game against Hawaii on Oct. 30, 7,000 spectators — about one-quarter of capacity — will be allowed at War Memorial Stadium. While I’m mostly worried about the risks to athletes on the field, I hope UW strictly enforces the school’s face-covering social-distancing policies in the stands.

Nothing has changed about the amount of risk COVID-19 poses to the football players. The disease is not only still at “a completely unacceptable level,” it is, in fact, getting worse. So what happened?

Three of the “Power Five” conferences — the Southeastern Conference, Big-12 and Atlantic Coast Conference — decided to play, that’s what. The moves set the stage for the MWC and others to see how things went in the initial weeks and perhaps change their minds.

It’s not difficult to imagine that the new six-year, $270 million contract that the MWC signed in January with CBS and Fox Sports to broadcast football and basketball games was a major factor in the conference’s decision to have a football season. Watching other schools reap the monetary, publicity and recruiting benefits of TV coverage must have been a bitter pill for some MWC-member boards of trustees and athletic departments to swallow.

And let’s not forget about the wealthy donors whom Seidel told the Star-Tribune were reconsidering their contributions to UW when the football season was temporarily on the line for health reasons. How fiscally fickle can you get? 

Many conferences decided not to put teams on the field this year. But lo and behold, the MWC, citing confidence in new testing procedures, suddenly plunged full speed ahead. Quest Diagnostics will provide three rapid antigen tests each week for all football players, coaches and trainers.

But testing isn’t a panacea. “You can’t test your way out of a pandemic,” Shane Speights, dean of the NYIT medical school at Arkansas State, told Sports Illustrated. “These tests aren’t 100%. We hang our hat on just the test results. It’s putting all your eggs in one basket.”

There’s nothing to guarantee that UW’s conference won’t pause or even prematurely end its abridged season. Thirty-three NCAA football games have already been either postponed or cancelled. Two high-profile teams, Florida and Vanderbilt, had a combined 60 players out for virus-related reasons on Oct. 17.

Earlier this month, 11 freshmen on UW’s football squad tested positive for COVID-19. All 31 freshmen players were quarantined and didn’t engage in any athletic activities for a week, a measure the program hoped would keep the rest of the team from getting sick.

Since the MWC’s decision reviving football, Wyoming is one of many western states where coronavirus cases are spiking. By Sunday evening, active cases statewide climbed to 2,341. Albany County, home to UW, had the most active cases in the state at 392.

Last week the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper declared it was on “Code Orange” status, which is one step below a full-blown disaster. The facility opened a COVID-19 surge unit and was diverting patients from outside Natrona County to other hospitals unless they were suffering heart attacks, strokes or traumatic injuries. 

“This is not going to go away for the next several months,” Dr. Mark Dowell, Natrona County health officer, told reporters. “I think it’s going to get a lot worse.”

Against this backdrop of severe health consequences statewide, does it really make sense for UW to squeeze in a few football games? The university, like many throughout the country, is having a difficult enough time convincing students to get tested for COVID-19 twice a week if they visit the campus.

Protecting public health is what should be driving policy decisions in Wyoming, including whether the state’s only four-year public university plays football.

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UW’s Seidel and the other MWC presidents have been rapped by some football program boosters for prioritizing the health and safety of their students — students who, in the case of football players, also double as unpaid revenue generators.

Dr. Matthew Martinez, director of sports cardiology for Atlantic Health System, told ESPN that he has received calls from major college football programs describing more than a dozen athletes with heart injuries from myocarditis. It’s a situation the American Heart Association is closely monitoring.

In addition to heart conditions, the Mayo Clinic warns that the virus can damage the lungs and brain. COVID-19 can also weaken blood vessels, which contributes to potentially long-lasting liver and kidney problems.

The MWC presidents’ original decision didn’t cancel the football season, only postponed it until spring, when we’ll know more about the disease, and potentially even have a viable vaccine. I think conference leaders got it right the first time, before economic concerns and angry donors likely made them reconsider to keep the peace.

If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it’s that we should proceed with caution. The stakes are literally life and death for many who are infected by COVID-19. Doing our best to make sure student athletes have healthy bodies long after they leave the college gridiron should be the primary concern of all college administrators, coaches, football fans and the student cheering section.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect the correct date of Wyoming’s first scheduled home game. -ED.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Our “rebel” approach is now receiving national attention for incompetence

    By Jim Carlton and Dan Frosch
    Oct. 23, 2020 8:00 am ET
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    In mid-July, Montana was far from the fast-moving Covid-19 outbreaks that were overwhelming other states, reporting about 150 new cases a day. It is now a national hot spot.

    The coronavirus is triggering more than 900 cases a day in Montana, health officials say, driven in large part by people fed up with face masks, as well as a resurgence of weddings, parties and other social gatherings. The state, which has one of the highest rates of infection in the U.S., has surpassed 25,000 cases and 275 deaths.

    “I think a lot of it is people got tired of not having their regular life,” said John Felton, the health officer in Yellowstone County, where officials say the number of hospital patients requiring intensive care now exceeds the county’s 41 ICU beds.

    Montana and other Rocky Mountain states are the latest region to get swept up by a surge in Covid-19 cases, which are nearing or at peak levels in Colorado, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. New patients have left hospital beds in short supply, and state officials have renewed efforts to slow the spread.

    So far, deaths from Covid-19 haven’t risen significantly across the region, but the wave of cases likely foreshadows an uptick similar to other outbreaks across the U.S., public-health officials said.

    From September to October, there has been a big rise in new Covid-19 cases in several states, as well as a rise in hospitalizations resulting from the virus.
    New cases vs. hospitalizations per 100,000
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    Note: Values are an average of the entire month.
    Source: COVID Tracking Project
    In New Mexico, where new cases have shot up to more than 800 a day from 108 on Sept. 1, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said Tuesday that restaurants, bars and other businesses where people gather would have to close for two weeks if four or more of their workers test positive over 14 days.

    Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, has directed the National Guard to help with contact tracing. New daily Covid-19 cases on Wednesday grew to 322 from 24 on Sept. 1.

    More than 600 Idaho teachers called in sick Monday and Tuesday in the West Ada School District over what they say are unsafe working conditions, citing little room for social distancing in classrooms and some students ignoring mask-wearing rules in the Boise-area district. Over the past month, daily cases in Idaho have reached more than 900 a day from about 200.

    “At the end of the day, we are just screaming the conditions they are having to work in are intolerable,” said Eric Thies, president of the West Ada Education Association, a teachers union.

    A high school in Idaho Falls. Hundreds of Idaho teachers in another school district called in sick this week to protest what they say are unsafe working conditions.
    PHOTO: JOHN ROARK/ASSOCIATED PRESS
    In Utah, where new cases rose from 300 a day at the start of September to more than 1,300, a hospital in Salt Lake City and another in St. George set up overflow areas after the number of patients exceeded the capacity of intensive-care units.

    “We’re struggling,” said Dr. Todd Vento, an infectious-diseases physician with Intermountain Healthcare, a network of 24 hospitals in Utah and Idaho including the one in St. George. Several other facilities were approaching capacity, he said.

    Covid-19 cases slammed the Northwest and Northeast last spring before spreading to the Sunbelt over the summer. Those outbreaks largely waned after widespread adoption of mask-wearing, social distancing and other safety measures.

    The same set of rules were adopted in much of the Rockies, but health officials said many people have let their guard down.

    A staff room at a respiratory clinic testing for the coronavirus in Casper, Wyo., on Oct. 9.
    PHOTO: CAYLA NIMMO/ASSOCIATED PRESS
    “People are just tired of the pandemic,” said Stan Hartman, health officer of Laramie County, Wyo., where cases—including in the state capitol of Cheyenne—have grown to more than 50 a day from about 15 last month. “They’re tired of the restrictions. We’re seeing more and more people wanting to get back to the way things were.”

    The opening of schools for classes as well as young people gathering outside of school have contributed to the outbreak, he said. Wyoming has no statewide face-mask rules, and a lack of mask wearing in public places has been especially problematic, Dr. Hartman said.

    “Some people just don’t want to wear masks,” he said. “They’re militantly opposed to it.” He referred to a recent letter to a local newspaper from a resident worried that people with Covid-19 could reinfect themselves by wearing a mask. It was evidence, he said, of the misinformation his department was trying to dispel.

    Search for a county
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    Sources: Johns Hopkins University (cases); Census Bureau (population)
    Masks have become so contentious that school officials in Caldwell, Idaho, canceled an Oct. 2 high-school football game at halftime after a standoff with maskless fans, including antigovernment activist Ammon Bundy, who helped lead a 2016 takeover of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon. Mr. Bundy said on social media he was there to watch his son play on one of the teams. He couldn’t be reached for comment.

    In Eastern Idaho, health officials in early October added three counties to the list of seven with mask requirements after a flare-up of cases. One of the newly added counties, Teton, had a mask order beginning in mid-July. After cases fell, the order was lifted on Sept. 10. The number of cases shot up after that, said Geri Rackow, director of Eastern Idaho Public Health.

    “If people would just do the simple mitigation strategies to slow it down, it would help,” Ms. Rackow said.

    SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
    How has the pandemic changed in your region over the past month? Join the conversation below.

    Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat running for a U.S. Senate seat, issued a statewide face-mask directive on July 15, but he left compliance up to the counties: Some made it voluntary, citing individual rights.

    “Whether you choose to mask up, or make a different choice should belong to our citizens, not the governor,” Randy Brodehl, a county commissioner in Flathead County, said in an Oct. 9 letter to the governor.

    State officials fear the arriving cold weather will lead to an even faster spread in the weeks ahead. “Like many folks around parts of the state, I woke up Saturday morning to snow, and recognized that will just continue to compound some of the issues we are facing with more people spending time in close contact indoors,” Gov. Bullock said in a news briefing Tuesday.

  2. On the Last Good Day before the global apocalypse wave comes to finally decimate Wyoming like a scene from a Mad Max movie , having been everywhere else as it moves up the elevation contours on the ancient topo maps , the few remaining people will be herding their scant cattle and sheep, knapping flint, harvesting wild crops gathering seeds, laying in firewood , salvaging scrap metal from the ruins of a once bustling culture. No mines , no drilling rigs, no shops or warehouses or stores… those all went away years ago.

    But by gawd you can bet there will be football games… and maybe even a few crude rodeos now that summers last 10 months

  3. And they are doing all this while increasingly bringing down the hammer on faculty, staff and the entire student body. As campus opens up more and more, cases go up and up. As cases go up, students and staff are increasingly blamed for being ‘non-compliant’ with the rules and threatened with all manner of dire consequences such as formal disciplinary proceedings, expulsion or termination, while the administration constantly cuts themselves slack by changing the rules, moving the goalpoasts or saying “some cases are to be expected” and “look how much testing we’re doing!!”

    Administrators are making the decisions that are putting the entire community at real risk, but they accept no responsibility for the consequences of these decisions and instead push all that responsibility and burden onto their employees and their students while taking their money.

    An employee can be banned from their workplace (with little recourse), formally disciplined and potentially lose their job if they miss a required weekly COVID test, but UW administration can make a decision to regularly inject thousands of unaccountable, untested, out-of-town sports spectators into our community for money and…. ???