Friday, November 27, 2020

Q&A with MSU President Samuel L. Stanley on the return of Big Ten Football

October 23, 2020
MSU President Samuel L. Stanley, Cowles House, 08.27.2020. Courtesy of Media Information Manager Penny Davis
MSU President Samuel L. Stanley, Cowles House, 08.27.2020. Courtesy of Media Information Manager Penny Davis —
Photo by Derrick L. Turner | The State News

The return of Big Ten football has been a long, tumultuous road. One of the main people involved in the discussions to bring back football was Michigan State President Samuel L. Stanley Jr., who was one of 14 Big Ten Presidents and Chancellors who voted to make this season reality late this summer.

As Michigan State gets set to kick off the Mel Tucker era against Rutgers on Saturday, The State News sat down with President Stanley to discuss the return of football and the COVID-19 concerns that come with it.

How excited are you for football to kick off on Saturday?

Very excited. As you know, it’s been a long and tortuous path to get here, but I’m glad we are here, and very excited about the game on Saturday. For Coach Tucker, it'll be his first game he's coached as Michigan State University’s head coach, so that's exciting. I think he's had a Herculean task ahead of him with not having had a spring or summer really to get to know the team very well, so whatever they do on the field I'll be impressed.

It's such a tradition for Michigan State, such a tradition for the Big Ten. I've been telling people I think this is the start of the college football season this weekend, because until the Big Ten was playing, I don't think college football was really started. People in the SEC and ACC might disagree with me on that, but that's okay. I'm incredibly excited about it, so I'll be watching it on TV and listening to my friends on the radio too, and enjoying the game.

What are some of your biggest concerns with football returning in terms of COVID-19 spread in East Lansing, at Michigan State?

I am concerned about it and I think it's something again we've been communicating a lot or tried to communicate a lot with students, and with the community as well. Our expectations are really clear, we want people to enjoy the game, but in your room, with your family or if you're part of the same bubble and with a small group of people wearing masks and distancing and doing it really safely. We're not going to have tailgating, we've made that very clear and again that's clear throughout the Big Ten. That’s something that everybody enjoys and looks forward to, it's a great tradition. I was so impressed when I came to MSU for my first game and saw all the tents out and people in the parking lots and having a great time. It's a wonderful tradition. but we just can't do it right now because of the virus, so we won't be able to do that. We'll ask people again who aren't coming to campus to also not have large gatherings or parties, and the city of East Lansing and Lansing will be patrolling those kinds of things to make sure that doesn't happen. 

When you see Halloween and the rivalry game between the University of Michigan and Michigan State on the same day, what’s your immediate thought?

I’m hoping that people will celebrate the rivalry with Michigan the same way we're going against Rutgers, that people will watch the game on TV. They won't be welcome in Ann Arbor, Michigan as a university is in lockdown, so the last thing I think they would expect to see is lots of MSU students arriving there. There's no game to watch there, so there's no reason to go, so I hope students will recognize that. 

For Halloween, again I'd ask people to be restrained and think about what we've gone through recently where we had houses that had to be locked down because of COVID. We had fraternities, sororities, and other large houses locked down. We had the campus locked down, we had people staying in quarantine for two weeks on campus because of the health order, so think about those things and try not to disrupt the semester. 

I’m not trying to take the fun away from this, I think you can have fun watching with friends that you’ve been confined with, friends you're not concerned about getting COVID from.

From when the Big Ten Presidents and Chancellors decided to “cancel” football to when they decided they would restart, what changed for you?

“The Big Ten Commissioner summarized it well in his statement when we decided to postpone the season, and that was there were a number of uncertainties in front of us, and until we could settle those things we didn't want to move ahead with a season. That's when we made the decision to postpone the fall season and those uncertainties really were in two categories. One was whether our testing was adequate to prevent infections being transmitted to players and coaches in practice or in games, and our feeling was that the protocols we had in place probably were not adequate to do that. That's the impression we had from our doctors and from the cases we were seeing on campus told us that we weren't convinced that they were adequate. The second issue was around this issue of people who had COVID-19, and then had signs potentially of heart inflammation, what we call myocarditis. Then the question was, what's the pathway to return to activity for those people? How prevalent is this? How often does it happen when athletes have COVID-19, and how do we make sure that people aren't at risk? Then if they want to return to play, how do we make sure they're safe to play and how do we clear them?

A couple of manuscripts were published that said that antigen testing, so these are tests that don't measure viral nucleic acids but actually measure viral proteins, they tend to be very specific, slightly less sensitive than the PCR test, but a positive tends to be a positive and they can be done rapidly. They can be done with detectors that will give an answer in 45 minutes, they can be done in dipsticks and it'll give an answer in 10 or 15 minutes, so you can do them in point of sight. The feeling was if you took that kind of test, and then you did it on a daily basis for players, then you probably had a pretty good chance that you would avoid any transmission of disease. That test is sensitive enough to pick up people who were in a level where they could transmit, so it would allow you to detect people who were potential to transmit even if they were symptomatic or asymptomatic. Doing that on a daily basis six or seven days a week,

we felt it would be adequate to ensure that when players got on the field they wouldn't be contacting other people with COVID-19. They wouldn't come in contact with coaches or trainers with COVID-19 on or off the playing field. 

Then when it came to the myocarditis issue, we developed some protocols that involve doing a number of tests to assess heart function, and that includes a cardiac magnetic resonance imaging or cardiac MRI, so probably the most sensitive test for myocarditis. That's now being done on any player who has COVID-19. Then before they can return to practice they have to have a clearance, they have to wait until first of all, they're medically cleared from COVID-19. Then they need to undergo one of these studies along with several other studies to detect myocarditis before they're allowed to return to competition. That’s the way we got through that, and should somebody develop myocarditis and we have evidence of that, then they're automatically out for three months. In this case, that would probably take them out for the season. So that's the protocol and we hope to use the same protocol for men's and women's basketball, for ice hockey, and for any sport where there’s transmission risk.

East Lansing Mayor Aaron Stephens and other Big Ten town mayors released a letter citing concern with the return of football if the community spread was at a high level. If COVID-19 cases were on the rise in East Lansing, could that prompt a cancelation of a game?

I think we have to adjust to what's happening in the community, look at the public health orders that are there and think about that. We never want to divorce ourselves from those rules that are taking place.

The key thing is every fan in that stand is going to have a mask on. Every fan in that stand is going to be socially distanced. We will enforce, if people come on our campus, and we will continue to enforce our mask-wearing rules and our social distance rules. 

I mean positivity is important but as I said, I operate under the premise that everybody's infected and I'm infected, and that's how I behave. That's still how I would approach the game is that everybody's potentially infected and I'm infected so people have to socially distance, so you have to keep them apart. That's very difficult to do if you have 50,000 people trying to squeeze into a stadium, so that's one of the reasons not to have fans in the stands. In terms of the people who will be coming to the game who are actually allowed there, they will be wearing masks, they will be socially distant, and I think their risk of transmission is relatively low.

What’s your prediction for Saturday against Rutgers?

MSU’s going to win. I have a lot of confidence in Mel, even though he has so many things stacked against him. He’s got some very good players, he's got some returning players I think will make a difference. I like us in a home game, even without fans in the stands. It would be nicer if we had people to cheer them on or if we had the band there, nice for all of those things, but I like our chances. 

For the season as a whole, I think it's going to be a difficult one for the reasons we've talked about. There's no cupcakes on this schedule. Each team we play is a challenge, each team is a Big Ten caliber team, and so that's going to make it a tough season. I think it's going to be different than any season, and I think we'll measure success maybe differently than we would in years past. Maybe it won't be so much about wins and losses this year. It’ll be about how much Coach Tucker learns about the team, how we persevere and have what we hope will be a full season and a safe season. I think if we have those things, I'll consider it a success.


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