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College Athletes Return To Campuses For Voluntary Training Despite Safety Concerns

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Division I college athletes are coming back to campuses this week for voluntary training. The NCAA calls it the resocialization of collegiate sport following the shutdown in March because of the coronavirus outbreak. The NCAA has a long list of COVID-19 guidelines for schools, but as NPR's Tom Goldman reports, there is concern some universities might not follow the plan.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: We're not yet here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Valladay walks into the end zone. Touchdown Wyoming.

GOLDMAN: But in Laramie this week, the University of Wyoming is one of the schools nationwide taking steps back to playing college sports.

MATT WHISENANT: We had approximately 80 student-athletes show up.

GOLDMAN: Matt Whisenant is Wyoming's deputy athletic director. He says the football and men's and women's basketball players who've returned are free to train in a couple of weeks when they all complete a 14-day quarantine and the COVID-19 tests they're getting this week come back negative. When they finally do hit the weight room, the numbers will be limited. All athletes will get multiple sets of workout clothes the university will clean after each session. Face masks will be provided and required. The state of Wyoming has not been hard hit by the virus. Still, Whisenant says, the university wants to be extra careful.

WHISENANT: To minimize the risk and to make sure our student-athletes, you know, feel safe and their parents, and legal guardians, and all of us and make our community feel good about it. We wanted to make sure that we did it the right way.

GOLDMAN: The NCAA hopes all schools do the same, but it's action plan doesn't require that. In the document, there are several sections using the word must, as in, a school's athletics department must have a resocialization plan in place. But it also says the document's overall content is meant to serve as guidance only. And this worries longtime college-athlete advocate Ramogi Huma.

RAMOGI HUMA: There will be no oversight, no accountability. These are the same schools putting players back in games with concussions, who are covering up sexual assaults of dozens and dozens of players. And now we're expected that somehow, some way they're now going to start following appropriate health and safety standards.

GOLDMAN: In the absence of an NCAA plan with enforcement teeth, Elijah Wade generated his own.

ELIJAH WADE: I'm a former UCLA football player.

GOLDMAN: And a current member of UCLA's student government, where Wade was the driving force behind a resolution to ensure COVID-19 protections for college athletes. Wade, who's 20, says he was motivated by a couple of things - his own experience. He was forced medically retired from football because of an injury last season that he says wasn't handled properly by UCLA. And he had conversations with other athletes about practicing and playing during the coronavirus outbreak.

WADE: A lot of them have expressed a fear that they're going to have to choose to decide between the health and well-being of not only themselves, but their friends and family and their communities, and protecting a scholarship that they worked so hard to earn.

GOLDMAN: His resolution includes a call for athletes to be able to make that choice on returning without fear of losing a scholarship. Responding to the resolution, the California Department of Public Health says it's committed to ensuring the protection of players and coaching staffs across the state. Elijah Wade encourages athletes nationwide to lobby for what, he says, are necessary COVID-19 protections and safety enforcement as colleges return to the landscape of sport in a pandemic.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE OCTOPUS PROJECT'S "I SAW THE BRIGHT SHINIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.