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Minnesota Football: Gophers’ COVID outbreak a harsh reminder of perils of pandemic football

COVID has been a constant presence for Minnesota this season

NCAA Football: Iowa at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Forty-eight hours ago, the Minnesota Golden Gophers were preparing for a rivalry game against the Wisconsin Badgers. But you wouldn’t have known it from watching Fleck’s weekly press conference on Monday. After fielding questions ranging from how COVID-19 restrictions have impacted recruiting to his decision not to make public the names of players who have tested positive, Fleck offered the media assembled on the Zoom call his own question:

“Anyone got any questions about the game?”

Perhaps the writing was on the wall after the Gophers were without 22 players against Purdue in their 34-31 victory on Friday night. Fleck attributed about half of those absences to COVID, whether it be positive tests or contact tracing, but it was the latest and most concerning setback for a program that has battled COVID-related challenges all season long.

Before the season had even started, mammoth right tackle Daniel Faalele had opted out, reportedly due to concerns about COVID. Word out of fall camp was that a handful of players were limited in practice as they recovered from a bout with the infectious disease. In the opener against Michigan, Minnesota took the field without kicker Michael Lantz, punter Mark Crawford, and kickoff specialist Dragan Kesich, setting the stage for a special teams disaster. In the weeks since, the Gophers have lost starting defensive tackle Keonte Schad, starting cornerback Benjamin St.-Juste, and starting rush end Boye Mafe to positive COVID-19 tests.

“Everything we do has been up in the air since we started this whole thing,” Fleck stated matter-of-factly on Monday, acknowledging the fluid nature of a season in which a player can be available one day and unavailable for 21 days the next after a positive test.

To his credit, Fleck has never used this as an excuse for the team’s poor play. He has repeatedly emphasized that these challenges are by no means unique to their program, but that they are going to affect each program differently across the country.

Wisconsin can certainly relate, having already been forced to cancel two games earlier this season due to a COVID-19 outbreak. The Big Ten has now had five games in total cancelled so far this season, with Saturday’s Minnesota-Wisconsin game the latest to get the axe. Just last week, 18 games were cancelled across college football, all for COVID-related reasons.

This is the bargain we made at the outset. The Big Ten agreed to return to play once daily antigen testing was available, but frequent testing is only one component of prevention. And even with mask-wearing and social distancing, there is no bulletproof strategy for avoiding exposure short of complete isolation, which is simply not feasible when you are dealing with 85+ college-aged student-athletes. Granted, there are football programs like Northwestern that claim to have not had a single COVID case since players returned to campus, but not every program has been so fortunate, and through no fault of their own in most cases, I assume.

You may have wanted a season of college football, but COVID was going to dictate the terms.

This was never not going to be a Frankenstein’s Monster of a season, patched together by conferences setting their own schedules and adopting their own medical protocols. I’ll admit to being hopeful — optimistic, even — that the Gophers could navigate a nine-game season and emerge relatively unscathed. But as has been the case for much of 2020, my expectations were at odds with reality, and nearly every week has delivered a blunt reminder that grasping for a sense of normalcy during this time can be naïve at best and dangerously foolish at worst.

Many people, Fleck included, have said that the priority this season is the health and safety of the student-athletes. We can debate all day and night about whether having a season at all flies in the face of that, but at this moment that is exactly where our focus should be as we wish those affected a complete recovery. Everything else is, as it should be, secondary.