By Jimmy Robertson
BLACKSBURG – How confident is Whit Babcock in Virginia Tech’s testing procedures and protocols, as the Virginia Tech football team gets ready to kick off August practices in the COVID-19 pandemic era?
The Virginia Tech Director of Athletics would have no concerns if his oldest son were on the team.
“I’m also a parent of a Division I student-athlete [a football player at William & Mary] whom I love more than anything in the world, and I would put him in our protocol any day of the week and sleep very soundly,” Babcock said.
That message and many others came out during an hourlong Zoom conference between Babcock, Dr. Mark Rogers (Tech’s Chief Medical Officer) and members of the media Wednesday afternoon.
The bulk of the questions centered around COVID-19 and Virginia Tech’s efforts to protect its student-athletes. This came into the spotlight Monday when football standout Caleb Farley wrote in an NBC Sports article that part of his reasoning for opting out of the 2020 season was concern over Tech’s procedures and protocols.
Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente talked with Farley on Monday afternoon before releasing a statement, supporting Farley as a player and individual, while also supporting the efforts of Tech’s sports medicine staff. Rogers also released a statement Monday about Tech’s protocols.
Then Wednesday, Rogers and Babcock rigorously defended the athletics department’s efforts.
To start, Virginia Tech tests each student-athlete once he or she comes back to campus to resume workouts and then conducts a follow-up test two weeks later. A percentage of the school’s student-athletes then get tested randomly along the way.
And that’s just during the preseason.
“The ACC and NCAA have recommendations, and we’re following all of those – and even actually a little bit more,” Rogers said. “Once we get into the season, the NCAA and ACC have risk stratified all these sports into high risk, intermediate risk, and low risk. The high risk sports would get weekly testing three days before the competition, and that includes anyone that would be essential personnel [coaches, support staff, etc.].
“Preseason and out of season, we’re testing more than what the ACC is recommending right now.”
Also, the sports medicine staff has been executing an aggressive education plan on the disease. Doctors and trainers have sent out videos and held multiple Zoom conferences with athletes and coaches. Signage exists throughout the athletics facilities reminding athletes to wear masks, wash their hands, and distance themselves. The staff even walks through locker rooms and calls out athletes who aren’t adhering to protocols.
“It’s a consistent message that they’ve been getting since they came on campus, and a lot of that even began before they came back to campus,” Rogers said.
In addition, Tech’s sports staff continue to conduct workouts outside or within the Beamer-Lawson Indoor Practice Facility – strong air circulation helps prevent the spread of the virus. The indoor facility has six large garage-like doors that open to allow access to the outdoor practice field, and more importantly, allow air to circulate within the building.
Farley had questioned having 100-plus players gather in the space for workouts and walkthroughs – but Tech Athletics had received prior approval from health officials to do this before the players returned to campus.
“The health department and campus approved it,” Rogers said.
Rogers, Babcock, and the sports medicine staff are gearing up for potential risks, as more than 30,000 students get ready to return to campus in the next two weeks to resume classes. Obviously, the additional people bring added risk, particularly those who come from areas where the disease has been prevalent.
Tech’s student-athletes will continue to be reminded to avoid highly populated areas, especially any parties or the overall downtown scene.
“That’s a part of college life, but it doesn’t have to be,” Rogers said. “That’s a physical choice that they’re going to have to make. If they’re conscientious about their goals, then obviously, they want to go to class, and if they want to play a sport, then those are the two highest priorities to keep themselves safe and the community safe. That’s going to have to be a priority of the student-athletes – what they want their focus to be.”
ACC presidents have cleared member schools to begin fall sports starting in early September. They approved a 11-game football schedule that includes 10 conference games and one nonconference game.
Of course, everything is subject to change in today’s world, but Rogers thinks that the Tech sports medicine staff has created the safest possible environment for sports – with flexibility to do even more if health officials ask.
“I think we’re doing as much as we can to keep it as safe as we can and operating under the assumption that our student-athletes want to perform,” he said. “It’s our job as a sports medicine team to make it as safe as we can, so that they can perform. We’ve talked that, on the sports field and certainly outside the sports field, there is a risk for COVID. I think we just need to be smart and take as many precautions as we can and leave it to the experts to kind of move forward.”
Babcock has been focused on doing his part to help his staff create the safest environment possible for the student-athletes. He also faces the added challenge of trying to make sure that the department remains secure from a financial perspective.
Schools around the nation have been cutting sports, while furloughing employees and eliminating positions – all to save money. Virginia Tech Athletics hasn’t gotten to that point, but Babcock knows there will be a negative impact.
“It is deeply concerning,” he said. “We have nearly a $100 million budget. I believe that impact will be better known later in the year when campus gets up and running. Can we have games? The ticket component will take a hit. Will television [take a hit]? Will advertising? There is a big financial component. Not to trump health, but the financial component is big. We’re trying to make it work to where we can provide opportunities for all these student-athletes. Outside of football, too. So there is a lot of pressure on the health side and a lot of pressure financially.”
Babcock hopes that the coming days provide a little more certainty. For sure, in that respect, he’s like everyone else in college athletics these days.
By Jimmy Robertson