Playing Division I college football is a privilege earned by elite athletes, but as West Virginia prepares to play a season in the middle of a pandemic, head coach Neal Brown wants his team to realize there are no guarantees.
Notable COVID-19 outbreaks at major institutions like Notre Dame and North Carolina have corresponded with the return of students to campus. As WVU welcomes students back through a phased return plan with undergraduate classes resuming Wednesday, Brown is encouraging his players to make smart decisions with their teammates in mind.
“It’s a right to be on the football team,” Brown said. “It’s a right, and you can lose that right. The trust within teammate to teammate is so important.”
Brown’s football program has not reported an active case of COVID-19 since fall camp began nearly two weeks ago, but the program did endure a substantial spike in cases in July, according to testing data released weekly by WVU Athletics.
While the university is administering free COVID tests to students who are returning to campus, it has also already publicly reprimanded students who hosted recent off-campus gatherings that it said violated local and state public safety orders.
Brown and his staff are on high alert, reminding football players that any decisions they make could impact their teammates.
“When these students are coming back — you saw some of the reports of the house parties and things like that — our guys gotta be smart, because anytime they choose to do something, they’re bringing that back to their team,” Brown said. “So, if it gets to a point where guys are repeat offenders or can’t follow the protocols, then they can’t be a part of this.”
Brown said it’s “critical” this summer in particular to coach athletes off the field.
“You’re asking them to make mature decisions, and a lot of these guys are not to that point in their lives, so you’re trying to coach them,” Brown said. “You really try to get the veterans to help them understand why it’s so important.”
Brown often says that his favorite aspect of coaching is teaching young athletes. He’s taking that mentality into new territory with coronavirus-related instruction, constantly sharing new articles and new information with athletes. He thinks his players have been receptive to that type of teaching so far, in part because they realize unsafe behavior could put their season in jeopardy.
“They do police themselves. We’ve got a large number of our guys that want to play, and if there’s people on our football team that are interfering, then they are reporting, so I think that’s positive,” Brown said. “Is it gonna be 100 percent? No. Are we gonna have some issues? Absolutely — that’s dealing with this age group. That’s gonna occur. But we’ve got some ways to monitor it as best we can.”
The resocialization of WVU has been a recent concern for WVU football staff members, according to head athletic trainer Vince Blankenship, who has been instrumental in the program’s coronavirus response. Even if players are educated on the virus and are committed to making safe decisions, what happens to the rest of the campus is completely out of the team’s control.
“While football is important to all of us — it’s important to this community, this state, this university — that doesn’t mean it’s important to every student who is walking on campus. They didn’t come here to play football, they came here to get an education,” Blankenship said. “We were all college students once, too — you’re gonna go out and you’re gonna socialize. We’re asking them not to not socialize, but to do it in the correct way, where they’re outdoors, social distancing, wearing a mask.
“That’s where my concern comes in — the groups as a whole, as opposed to our small, little clip of Morgantown that is West Virginia football,” he added.
Brown expects the size of his roster to fluctuate throughout the season. It’s possible that WVU will have to play some games with a limited roster because of positive coronavirus tests, but if things are going well, Brown said the roster could expand with the addition of some walk-ons.
All of this, he said, will be determined on a week-to-week basis.
“I learned at the beginning of this not to long-range plan too much,” Brown said.
WVU announced Thursday that no fans will be permitted to attend the Sept. 12 home opener against Eastern Kentucky.