OU football: COVID officer says school doing 'everything we possibly can' with players set for return
Dale Bratzler was announced as OU’s chief COVID officer on June 8, and since then, the state of Oklahoma has seen more than 4,000 additional coronavirus cases.
During that same time, OU coaches returned to their offices on campus and players have begun traveling to Norman to prepare for the team’s voluntary workouts, which are set to begin July 1.
Other schools across the country have returned and seen many players testing positive for COVID-19. Nearly a third of Clemson’s roster has reportedly tested positive since returning on June 1 and Kansas State had to suspend its workouts for two weeks on June 20 after 14 players tested positive.
Bratzler spoke to The Oklahoman by phone Friday and talked about the athletic department’s plan to return, the protocols it has put in place to ensure safety and the question of whether fans will be in attendance when the football season starts
Q: You’ve only been in your position as OU's COVID officer for a couple weeks, but what has your interaction been with the athletic department regarding a return to campus for football players?
A: "I have to tell you, (OU athletic director) Joe Castiglione, (executive associate athletic director) Larry Naifeh and others on the athletic staff had really put a ton of work in preparing to bring the student-athletes back. They really had very good, detailed plans put together.
"The week before last, I had the chance to tour the athletic facilities, and we’ve reviewed all the plans. The biggest thing the president (Joe Harroz) wanted me to do was to take a medical look and review every plan that was developed and send it back to the president after I signed off on them."
What are some of the specific protocols and procedures OU is taking to ensure safety for the players as best as possible?
"I’ve commended (the athletic department) because they’ve done everything they could possibly do to keep those students as safe as possible. It’s required, and obviously, we can’t enforce it because most of them are out of state, to self-quarantine and isolate for 14 days prior to coming to campus because there are outbreaks all over the country. Every student-athlete will be tested when they arrive, and that’s consistent with most universities that I know of.
"We have very, very strict guidelines on disinfection, hygiene, hand hygiene and things of that nature. They’ve done a great job of limiting the number of players that can be in the locker room and in any training facility at any time. The weight room is obviously very large, but only 10 players are going to be allowed in at one time. They’ve changed their airflow to protect students from any virus that might get in through there. They're requiring everyone to wear a mask, the only time they can take it off is when they’re doing workouts outdoors because they can physically distance. The trainers will work at the student’s back so they’re not face-to-face when working with them. Really, they’re doing anything we possibly can to to create physical separation to keep the player safe. The usual mechanisms for getting food have shifted to a grab-and-go style, and there will be training for all student-athletes. I was really impressed by the plans they had already put together."
Those seem like pretty thorough protocols to have for players, but schools across the country are still having issues with dozens of players testing positive. What could still go wrong even if players follow these protocols?
"You know, we’re relying on the actions of 18- to 22-year-old kids to make decisions about how they interact with people on the campus and what they do when they leave. So I guess I worry the most about doing everything we possibly can to control what they can do on campus. What I can’t control is what they do when they leave campus.
"I think the coaching staff will be very, very clear about if players want to play, then you need to take that personal responsibility 24/7."
Given the recent surge in cases across the country and in Oklahoma, how realistic is it that fans can be in the stands when the season starts?
"As we’ve told everybody, this is a fluid process. ... And think about it, if this week was OU-Texas football, do you think we would be having a game? With the tremendous outbreak in Texas, particularly around Dallas, there’s no way we’d take a bunch of football players, students or anyone else down to Texas for a football game. So I think it’s going to have to be a very fluid conversation.
"We’ve explicitly not made any decisions on if the stadium will be open. Joe Castiglione and Joe Harroz are both very deeply engaged with the NCAA and the Big 12 Conference, and that will drive the decision making about individual games. Then, we may end up being in that position where we have to see what’s happening locally to decide if we can fill the stadium or if we’ll have to have partial attendance to maintain physical distancing. None of those decisions have been made yet because it’s a little bit early."
Lincoln Riley has been pretty vocal about how serious he’s taking the pandemic while some other major-college football coaches seem to not take it as seriously. What’s your assessment of him?
"I’ve given him high praises because he seems incredibly reasonable. He recognizes the risk. He's deeply concerned about the safety of the players and the coaching staff and others that would be interacting with the team. I give him great, great credit because waiting until July 1 to start workouts has ended up as a very wise decision. It’s allowed time to put in policies like self-isolating students before they come to campus. Can we keep it out? I can’t guarantee we can keep COVID out of the football team or any other student activities, but we’re going to do everything we possibly can."