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Athletics: UL athletes have COVID-19 concerns as students return

Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, Aug. 17, 2020

They have been operating in a bubble of sorts.

Since returning to offseason training activities earlier this summer, Ragin’ Cajuns athletes – first those who play football, then those from other sports including basketball – have had the UL campus virtually to themselves.

Then came Monday, and the start of fall semester classes.

The general student population is back, and the risk of spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has accordingly taken a turn toward upward.

With that dynamics change for everyone in the Cajuns’ athletic department as they try to save their respective seasons while striving to also stave off a virus responsible, according to Johns Hopkins University, for killing more than 170,000 and infecting more than 5.4 million in the United States alone.

Related:Coronavirus crisis costs Cajuns 10 football roster spots

“I think we’ve done a great job with this COVID stuff,” Cajuns linebacker Lorenzo McCaskill said Monday.

“That’s kind of been the main thing especially Coach (Billy) Napier has been pressing us about is being careful on campus; all the students back, don’t go to any parties or anything like that.”

But will the rest of student body do as UL athletes have been instructed to do, especially off-campus?

More than one Cajun is skeptical.

“We’re talking about 18- to 21-year-old kids,” McCaskill said.

“I don’t think they’re gonna take it as serious as us. Because we’re all working to the same goal – to be able to play. And that’s not really in their mindset.

“Their mindset,” McCaskill added, “is to go to school, work or go have fun at a college. So, I mean, I wouldn’t expect them to have that have same mindset as a football or any other athlete.”

More:UL opens camp with three Cajuns out with major injuries

For Cajun football players, though, combating the coronavirus has become a priority.

Quarterback Levi Lewis and receiver Peter LeBlanc even are among UL athletes encouraging mask use in a television commercial.

“We just know to wear our mask everywhere we go,” running back Trey Ragas said Monday.

“If you’re in the car with your friend, or it could be your cousin, wear a mask. Always stay safe. With this virus, you never know when somebody has it or how close you are to it.

“But the main thing,” Ragas added, “is for you to be smart about it. … Social distance from everybody. Try not to leave the house unless you need to. … Stay inside and chill. … Try to not do too much outside of what you need to do.”

Several UL students photographed Monday were wearing masks while on campus.

But Ragas sounded as doubtful as McCaskill that most of their fellow students will feel, and act, accordingly around the clock.

“If you want to be honest,” said Ragas, whose first class on campus is Tuesday, “probably not.

“Regular students don’t have nothing to lose, you know? They might be quarantined and do everything online. But if we get sick it could affect our season – if we have a season.”

Related:UL Lafayette students move on to campus in a new way to maintain social distance


His players are following the rules now, but Napier initially has had his hands full with his own bunch.

“Early on, there was a learning curve. It was very much an education piece,” he said. “We spent an entire summer educating our players on how to mitigate the spread of the virus. … It’s kind of learning a new way to live.

“When the students arrive, not only on our campus but across the country, that’s when the variables go up.

“I think that’s gonna be a critical time,” Napier added last week, “not only for our team but also all the college football teams out there.”

The ones still planning to play, that is.

Already the Big Ten, Pac-12, MAC and Mountain West have decided to hold off for the fall.

But the Sun Belt Conference, to which UL belongs, and the SEC, which sits in a similar geographic footprint, are among those, at least for now, saying they will give it a go.

More:UL, Sun Belt Conference football teams can play complete schedule

But it’s not just Sun Belt football teams whose seasons potentially are in peril and fearful of how the start of classes this week could impact their chances for suiting up.

“We are concerned about the students coming back,” Cajuns basketball coach Bob Marlin said last week. “It is college. … It is a college, university, town, and we just have to be smart and make good decisions.

“Because we saw what happened with football earlier, when certain programs came back and got together and went to a fraternity or sorority party … or downtown bars, whatever it might be, and it got of hand in a hurry.”

UL students returning to campus for the start of the fall semester are required to follow Covid-19 safety guidelines.

Even Monday, images of what is happening elsewhere – youngsters packing in the streets at an off-campus party near the University of Georgia over the weekend, others lined up close together to enter an establishment near the University of Alabama campus – have been getting national media attention.

At UL, rampant virus spread among athletes has not proven problematic to this point.

The university did announce in June, shortly after football players reported for voluntary workouts, that three student-athletes from unspecified sports had tested positive for the virus and 10 were in quarantine.

They reported two more positive tests a short time later.

Since then?

“The numbers have been extremely, extremely low in terms of positive cases,” UL athletic director Bryan Maggard said late last week. “Extremely.

“If it grew from that last number, it wasn’t by much.”

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Precise numbers have been requested from UL but as early afternoon they had not yet been provided.

But when preseason football camp opened in early August, Napier said, his Cajuns had no active positive cases or players in quarantine. 

“I think our policies, our guidelines, our restrictions and the compliance of our student-athletes and coaches and staff is working,” Maggard said.

From daily health checks to mask-wearing requirement and new social-distancing rules, the Cajuns really have toiled to stem the spread.

And not just the football team.

“We’ve had several conversations about masking up and doing what you are supposed to do – ‘If you guys want to play, you have to be committed to this,’ ” Marlin said.

The message seems to have hit home for athletes in all UL sports who really do want to play.

Related:UL players adamant about desire to play football season

And make no mistake: That’s the goal for many, if not all, student-athletes in the program.

“There is no question our players want to play,” Napier said. “I think that’s the general consensus here.”

Marlin said none of his players have elected to opt out for 2020-21.

In the meantime, his club currently is scheduled to resume workouts later this week, start full-time preseason practice in late September and begin the season with a date against a big-name Big 12 team.

“We’re going to attack this year as if we’re going to play at Texas on Nov. 10,” the Cajuns coach said.

Napier – whose Cajuns currently are scheduled to start Sept. 12 at late addition Iowa State after losing their would-be opener against McNeese and additional non-conference games against Wyoming and at New Mexico State and Missouri – also said his football team has not had any player, coach or staffer choose to sit out 2020.

Related:McNeese AD explains decision to not play the Cajuns

More:UL loses second non-conference game amid COVID-19

More:SEC schedule decision could prove costly for the Cajuns

“It’s awesome to see players voice their desire to play,” he said. “It’s also okay for guys to maybe to opt out, given their situation.”

But with student-athletes following protocols so well, that’s been at issue at this point for the Cajuns.

Whether the larger general student population will be nearly so careful over the long haul, however, remains to be seen.

And how that impacts football, and down the road basketball, at UL is a similar unknown.

For the time being, all Marlin can do is see how it goes for football first.

Basketball decisions will come later.

“Football is the most-important thing right now,” he said.

“Our students coming back to campus, and football; those are the two most-important things that are A-1 with our athletic department, and trying to make sure that we get this mapped out.”

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