All football-related activity at ULM has been suspended after a coronavirus outbreak in the program. Nine positive cases among the players were confirmed while others wait for results.
In an interview with the News-Star, Scott McDonald, the ULM athletic director, said athletics anticipated a possible spike in cases.
“We fully anticipated an increased exposure to COVID-19 with the reopening of campus, the beginning of the fall semester as well as uptick in related off-campus activities,” McDonald said. “We also knew that we would have to work to create a modified student-athlete bubble once classes and on-campus activities resumed this month.”
ULM athletics’ foresight allowed the program to prepare for an outbreak. Before the beginning of the fall semester, safety protocols were placed to limit health risks for athletes including regular COVID-19 testing, social distancing guidelines and face-coverings.
McDonald hopes to “provide the safest and healthiest environment possible” for ULM’s athletes.
Matt Viator, the ULM football coach, shares McDonald’s hope.
“Our primary focus remains on creating an environment that ensures the health and safety of our student-athletes,” Viator said in an interview with the News-Star. “We’re fully aware that we’re managing a fluid situation, especially with the reopening of campus and the beginning of the fall semester.”
ULM athletics’ decision to continue with sports this semester has been in the works since March, according to McDonald. The athletic department considered guidance from the Sunbelt Conference COVID-19 Medical Advisory Group and the ULM Athletic Dept. COVID-19 Advisory Group before choosing to press on with the season.
Some students, like Ryan Skelly, a senior risk management major, said he supports ULM’s decision to participate in sports this semester.
“[Sports] are an essential part of college that students take pride in and can actively participate in,” Skelly said. “Going to games is optional and the people afraid of COVID-19 don’t have to go but students that want to support athletics and ULM should have that choice.”
McDonald said ULM athletics also wanted to make home games safer for football fans like Skelly.
People will still be able to attend games, but the number of fans permitted to enter the stadium has been lowered. Certain sections of the stadium will be reserved for people who fear they are too close to others. Mask-wearing, social distancing and hand washing will be encouraged through video board announcements and other PSAs. Concession will still be available but with cashless transactions only.
To attempt to eliminate risk on the field, protocol has been put in place to stop human interaction on the sidelines at games. Only field personnel will be allowed to interact with players during the game. The band, cheerleaders and dance team will perform in an area away from the crowd and teams.
Athletics plans on continuing with practice and the football season as soon as ULM’s coronavirus guidelines have been met. Some students like Alli Smith, a nursing major, don’t agree with the university’s decision.
Smith said ULM and other students should consider the impact of COVID-19 on others instead of just themselves.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic that has affected people’s families tremendously,” Smith said. “Even if it hasn’t closely impacted your own, there are people that have lost their parents, friends or grandparents and to continue with sports not only drives hundreds to the stadiums but to tailgates as well.”
For Smith, football is not a necessity or worth the risk of the health of others.
After a positive test result, ULM’s coronavirus guidelines require athletes to isolate at home for 10 days, follow a 14-day rest period and receive several cardiac tests. Once these requirements are met, athletes can return to practice and participate in games.
Sunbelt Conference policy mandates each team submit a list of eligible players for competition. To adhere to that policy, colleges must test their teams the week before a game.
ULM is scheduled to start football season at Troy on Sept. 5.