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Parents of Michigan defensive lineman: 'Our two sons are safer at home'

Shannon Ryan
Chicago Tribune

Mya and Chris Hinton are former Northwestern athletes; she played basketball, and he was a star offensive lineman who went on to make seven Pro Bowls in 13 NFL seasons. They have two sons on scholarship at Power Five football programs, including one at Michigan.

As they laid out their case for more effective NCAA oversight in handling the COVID-19 pandemic, Chris asked if he could emphasize one fact about his family.

They love football.

Michigan defensive lineman Christopher Hinton

But they aren’t willing to risk their sons’ health for it.

“Mya and I are huge football fans,” he said. “We want to see a season. But we want it done safely and only if it makes sense.”

The Hintons created the advocacy group College Football Parents 24/7, which has grown in less than two months to nearly 2,000 parents of athletes. Their goal is to push the NCAA to make clear and uniform rules for colleges to bring back sports as the U.S. continues to struggle to contain the outbreak.

Unless more uniformity exists as college teams begin practicing and move toward competing, the Hintons and other parents may keep their children from participating this season.

“We were looking for more protocol to be put in place so everyone is doing the same thing,” said Mya, who earned her law degree from Notre Dame. “What we’re seeing from school to school, everyone is doing it differently.”

In June, they sent an open letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert, outlining their requests for universal standard coronavirus testing and a set of safety protocols for all schools to follow rather than allowing conferences and programs to operate as independent islands with their own rules.

The notoriously hands-off NCAA on Thursday released a list of recommendations, such as testing within 72 hours of game days and wearing masks on sidelines.

Emmert sounded an alarm with his statement: “If there is to be college sports in the fall, we need to get a much better handle on the pandemic.”

The Hintons were disappointed the NCAA made only suggestions rather than requirements, leaving it up to individual schools and conferences whether they enforce the guidelines. Testing protocols have varied widely from school to school, from weekly testing at some to testing only when a player shows symptoms at others.

They scoffed as they read the NCAA release during a phone interview with the Chicago Tribune from their home in Georgia.

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“It’s pretty general,” said Chris, who grew up in Chicago and made five All-Pro first or second teams for the Colts and Falcons. “There’s nothing to it. It’s frustrating because the NCAA, if there’s an issue with whether athletes are getting an extra lunch or extra meal, they can whip up something and mandate something on rules about meals. But not about COVID-19 protocol.”

The Hintons were torn when their sons’ programs began voluntary workouts.

Myles is a freshman offensive lineman at Stanford, where California is seeing one of the nation’s most severe spikes in coronavirus cases. Christopher Jr. is a sophomore defensive lineman at Michigan.

The family carefully reviewed the schools’ policies and discussed their options before the sons returned to their campuses.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh sent a survey to parents about what they would like to see, and he hosted a video conference with parents, doctors and athletic trainers to explain their policies. Both Hinton sons have undergone testing since returning to workouts, and their parents are satisfied with the way Michigan and Stanford are handling a complex situation.

But there was another option for programs, Chris said.

“It’s simple: Don’t bring them on campus,” he said. “Don’t bring them back. I know for certain our two sons are safer at home than at a college setting right now.”

An NCAA mandate creating a level playing field for athlete health could help mitigate the risks involved with traveling and the close contact required in football, especially for linemen like the Hinton sons. Contact tracing is especially complex, given the number of teammates, opponents, coaches and officials that players are near on game day.

“It’s on us as parents,” Chris said. “Do we put our sons back in harm’s way? It’s tough when your son is a rising sophomore and this is his year to actually break into the rotation. We talked about it. We felt about as comfortable as we could feel in what the two schools were presenting. But it was a hard decision.”

The start of the season could bring another.

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“If guidelines that are going to be put in place, if we don’t feel comfortable (with them), they will not play,” he said. Other parents are considering the same, he said, especially those with seniors who could be sure NFL draftees without risking their health during a final — and possibly shortened — season.

More than 70 programs have reported positive coronavirus tests, with several suspending workouts after outbreaks. Many other programs are not publicly reporting their case numbers.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 canceled their nonconference seasons to better control their schedules should cancellations pop up. The Power Five conferences, according to a draft obtained by Sports Illustrated, are considering a set of requirements stronger than the NCAA recommendations, possibly mandating testing within 72 hours of a game.

But that would still leave Group of Five and FCS programs, which have smaller budgets, potentially financially strapped to conduct adequate testing.

The Hintons said the NCAA needs a plan to make sports more feasible at every level if it wants football to continue during the pandemic.

“Power Fives have the funding to do everything they should be doing,” Mya said. “They have more than enough resources to go above and beyond to supply what they need.”

The parents also want more transparency from schools. They said information they’ve received from other parents and coaches lead them to believe outbreaks are worse than the public is aware.

They said coaches privately have reached out to thank them for pushing for stricter standards, especially with many older coaches at higher risk.

“What we’re hearing and what’s being reported is just the tip of the iceberg,” Chris said. “There are multiple schools with 30-plus positive COVID tests of players. The problem is there’s been a lack of leadership from top down. Basically, the NCAA has dumped it to the universities and conferences.”

If a football player sprains an ankle or incurs a concussion during a game or practice, parents typically receive a phone call from a coach. The Hintons said parents in their group have mentioned not learning about their sons’ positive tests.

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With so much uncertainty surrounding the start of the season, it’s hard for them to avoid worrying.

“Anxiety? I’m not sure there’s a meter for that right now,” Mya said. “Even though our boys have the knowledge of what to do — wear a mask, wash your hands, all the things you’ve been hearing for months — their teammates may not have that. There are a lot of uncontrollables.”

The Hintons want to work with the NCAA to form a parent advocacy group, but they said Emmert’s response to that request noted an already existing athlete advisory council.

They said parents often can speak up when athletes can’t. Some parents may have fear of retaliation in the form of reduced playing time for their child if they complain, but their group can provide power in numbers.

“Parents sit around and put up with what’s dished out, and that has to change,” Chris said.

The Hintons promise to continue their advocacy group even after the pandemic, focusing on other aspects where the NCAA could “tweak” rules, notably in recruiting, to “enhance the student’s experience,” Mya said.

For now, their spotlight is focused on the NCAA and the coronavirus.

“We aren’t going away,” she said.