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As Texas begins voluntary workouts, uncertainty looms on multiple fronts

While players return to campus in preparation for the season, the state faces a burgeoning outbreak as athletes start to find their political power.

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NCAA Football: Texas Orange-White Spring Game John Gutierrez-USA TODAY Sports

Unprecedented times, indeed.

As the final groups of Texas Longhorns players return to campus and some of their teammates begin voluntary workouts on Monday, the university is dealing with the impacts of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in preparation for students returning this fall amidst a growing local outbreak as athletes find their voices against racial injustice and begin attempts to exercise some of their power.

The result is a tremendous amount of uncertainty, ranging to how the university will respond to Friday’s requests from athletes to how the transition back to campus and voluntary workouts will go as cases increase, and even what extreme measures might be necessary this fall to keep players healthy.

Response to inclusion requests from athletes

So far, other than a tweet by athletics director Chris Del Conte, the university hasn’t commented on the Friday statement from athletes that made multiple requests to address racial injustice and increase inclusiveness.

This is a key moment for the university — the current moment is birthing a movement that has figures like Ta-Nehisi Coates seeing hope in it. The awakening for current athletes is that they have a platform to make their voices heard, but they are also starting to consider their own relationship to systems of power and the steps they can take to wield their own.

Previous athletes wanted to speak up about how uncomfortable they felt about having to sing “The Eyes of Texas,” they just didn’t feel like they had the power to confront the system.

Contrast that not only to the requests made on Friday, but also Brennan Eagles and Anthony Cook publicly flouting the idea of not playing football at all. Unfortunately for players willing to consider that option, the cost of doing so is giving up a potentially lucrative professional football career, something they’ve been hard at work towards for years already. Yet, the fact that they are even seriously considering it is telling.

So far, the collective voices of those players are currently threatening nothing more than removing themselves from helping with recruitments and donor events. Behind the scenes, however, one might wonder the extent to which those discussions include the more radical options.

And that puts a significant amount of immediate pressure on an interim president trying to deal with an ongoing pandemic, an athletics director who is currently something approaching to revered by the fanbase, and a head football coach who has so far spoken with humanity about the pandemic and racial injustice.

They’ve largely said the right things to this point, but that’s the easy part.

Herman spoke passionately about wanting actual change to happen — well, now the players have made concrete requests to create some of that change. Some of it would likely require incurring the wrath of certain donors, especially replacing “The Eyes of Texas.”

The result is that the school’s leadership will have to make some tough decisions about which groups it really values. Are the feelings of a big donor more important than the feelings of black athletes past and present? Is a more inclusive campus community worth alienating some so-called fans?

People are paying close attention right now — recruits are taking note of schools in cities with auto parades of Confederate flags and former players are noticing whatever it was that counter-protestors in College Station were doing on Saturday.

Texas needs to get this right, for a lot of different reasons.

Beyond doing what reasonably seem like the right things to do, the university also needs to make those collective decisions knowing that there is greater potential now than ever before that athletes could exercise their ultimate power by walking away if the university doesn’t act in good faith to address their requests.

The coronavirus hits Texas

Governor Greg Abbott wasn’t willing to admit it publicly when he started reopening the state six weeks ago. In a private conservation with lawmakers, however, he did admit the obvious — that reopening the state would inevitably lead to more cases. Left unspoken even then, that more cases would lead to more hospitalizations and more deaths.

Well, the surge is finally here. After lockdown measures, and perhaps some luck, helped the state avoid the type of outbreak that threatened to overwhelm the healthcare system in New York, cases are quickly rising in Texas.

In Austin, the city entered Stage 4 (of 5) of risk-based guidelines on Sunday that recommends avoiding social gatherings and dining and shopping except for expanded essential businesses after the seven-day moving average of hospitalizations exceeded 20.

“At this point, our blinking yellow warning light is turning orange, which means our hospitals seem to be headed to an overwhelming surge in admissions,” mayor Steve Adler wrote in a letter. “We have some decisions to make and trade-offs to consider as we approach the red zone. Make no mistake, we will be seeing more hospitalizations and deaths. We need the Governor’s help enforcing masks and social distancing if we are to keep reopening the economy without overwhelming hospitals.”

The rise in cases comes just as Texas players are returning to campus to start voluntary workouts. The first group that arrived last week will start those workouts on Monday. The rest of the team is now in Austin and set for tests. Following two positive tests last week, there will likely be a higher number of positive tests this week.

Any players who test positive and recover will receive extra medical attention even after they stop having symptoms.

“We will do some more extensive workup on their heart and circulatory system knowing that, even though your body may have fought the virus off on its own, that there may be some underlying damage, possibly, that you don’t feel any effects of right now, but could be something that lingers,” Herman said.

Even the ability to keep up those voluntary workouts once they begin is questionable, especially given the expanding outbreak in Texas — Houston already suspended voluntary workouts after six athletes were positive for COVID-19, a decision also influenced by the city’s own significant increase in cases.

Herman said that Texas is spending more than a million dollars to get players back on campus, to test them, and to take other precautions like sanitizing equipment. It was an undertaking that required sanitizing dorms so that players could move in on campus.

He’s been obsessing about COVID-19 personally, admitting that he probably knows more about the virus right now than he does about his roster, though he did accurately recall the current scholarship number as 83.

The emerging concern for Herman and researchers as more information emerges is how much organ damage COVID-19 causes and how long the disease can linger. Some people who initially got sick in March are still experiencing symptoms. A 20-year-old woman had a double lung transplant.

Researchers are also finding pervasive lung abnormalities in asymptomatic patients.

Despite some of the new knowledge about the disease, there’s also still an incredible amount of uncertainty.

“There is no manual,” Herman said. “There are no best practices here because nobody’s ever done this before, and that’s across the country. We’re learning as we go.”

Sam Ehlinger’s future in quarantine or a literal bubble?

The best-case scenario for every player is testing positive for antibodies after an asymptomatic case that didn’t cause significant organ damage.

“I was hoping that my antibody tests would come back and say that I had antibodies and I didn’t have to worry about it anymore,” senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger said. “Unfortunately I don’t think that’s the case.”

On the NFL level, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians is considering keeping a third-string quarterback in quarantine in case Tom Brady and his backup catch the coronavirus during the season.

Herman took it to the next step, musing aloud about the potential to keep Ehlinger even more isolated than his teammates to keep him healthy. The suggestion drew a visible reaction from Ehlinger while also illustrating the extent to which coaches are willing to consider radical solutions to unprecedented challenges.

Thinking about how to keep his players safe is something that keeps Herman up at night.

“If you could, what was the movie, “Bubble Boy?” You know if you could, make a bubble for these guys to walk around in, you’d probably make a lot of money off of that because we’d certainly be buying a lot of those bubbles.”

Those type of bubbles are actually available — a man in New York went on a date in one early in the pandemic after he taped his phone number to a drone and sent it over his romantic interest. So those types of water walking balls are available online for purchase.

Ehlinger might not be happy to hear about that, though.