UM student-athletes pen petition to overturn two-week pause

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Michigan students-athletes, responding to the shutdown of athletics for up to 14 days because of confirmed cases of the COVID-19 variant B.1.1.7 that spreads faster, are determined to overturn the decision and have created an online petition.

Athletic department officials told The Detroit News on Sunday that after receiving a memorandum they considered a mandate from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) on Saturday, they felt they had no choice but to shut down athletics “until further notice and up to 14 days.” A spokesperson from the MDHHS said on Sunday it merely offered recommendations in the memo.

The men's basketball squad is one of several Michigan athletic teams affected by the two-week pause.

Christian Hubaker, a Michigan cross country runner, started the petition, “Help University of Michigan student-athletes lift the two week mandated shutdown” as part of the “Coalition of Student-Athletes” on Monday. It initially set a goal of 250 signatures, but that total was achieved in minutes as the number of signatures — from both athletes and supporters — continues to swell.

The athletes have taken issue with the MDHHS recommendations and believe the athletic department had no option but to acquiesce. The petition is meant to be an open letter to the MDHHS and the Washtenaw County Health Department.

According to the MDHHS memo, the recommendations were in response to the “five confirmed (B.1.1.7) cases and additional suspected cases of the variant associated with sports teams at the University.”

“Doing the blanket policy where we’re shutting down every single team even though there are some teams that have no traces of this variant whatsoever is not the correct response,” Hubaker, a junior from Grand Ledge, told The News on Monday. “The overwhelming amount of teams have no traces of this variant whatsoever. We would have much rather seen a team-by-team analysis of this. We think that would be a better response to the issue, and we think it was an easy way out to do a blanket policy.”

After the cross country team received the news during a Zoom call, Hubaker immediately called the Washtenaw County Health Department to leave a complaint. He had not received a returned call as of Monday. On Sunday morning, he started messaging Michigan athletes from other sports to gauge if everyone was as frustrated with the decision.

“I found there were a lot of people on a lot of teams that felt that same way with the amount of policies we’ve been following and the testing we’ve been doing,” Hubaker said. “We have a plan in place for these things to happen and how we’re going to react to them, so we don’t feel that it’s fair when something like this happened, that the plan was abandoned. We know that’s not on the part of the athletic department but on the part of the health department.”

The group finalized the letter on Monday and began to circulate it on social media.

Michigan’s announcement late Saturday night forced a number of alterations to Michigan’s athletic teams, their travel and upcoming schedules. Along with the men’s and women’s basketball teams that are currently in season, men’s hockey, wrestling, men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, indoor track and field, volleyball and cross country are competing, and the softball, baseball, soccer and lacrosse teams are on campus training. Michigan’s football team had begun winter conditioning.

Michigan’s women’s tennis team had to cancel a match against South Carolina on Sunday and was busing back to Ann Arbor, since it is not permitted to fly while under quarantine. The Pepperdine men’s tennis team had flown from southern California to play a match at Michigan on Sunday, but that was canceled. The cross country team, for which Hubaker competes, has canceled participating in the Big Ten championships in Indiana this weekend and that likely eliminates the team from qualifying for the NCAA championships.

Michigan finished seventh nationally in cross country last year. Hubaker said there has been one positive COVID-19 result among the cross country athletes in the last 20 weeks they’ve been on campus.

Michigan’s athletic department has been testing its athletes for the new COVID-19 variant.

“So essentially us going to get tested three times a week or more is actually the reason we’re in the quarantine,” Hubaker said. “It’s foolish to think it’s not out in the community because I’m sure that it is, so it seems unfair going just after the athletic department.

“Honestly, I think a big issue with some of the athletes I’ve talked to is we feel like we’re constantly being scapegoated for outbreaks in the community. It’s like every time there’s an uptick in Washtenaw County it’s revolving around the athletic department, and the reality is, the only reason that is, is because we’re being tested so efficiently and so frequently that that data is so readily available.”

The open letter points out “the physical and mental health of every Michigan student-athlete is at risk due to the recent mandate set in place.”

“I hope it doesn’t come across as we don’t want to want follow protocols,” Hubaker said. “We are totally for following enhanced protocols if that’s what is suggested we do to continue to compete.”

During an athletic department meeting on Sunday, Hubaker said they were told once the two-week shutdown is lifted, the MDHHS has not given them additional mitigation policies. This has also left the athletes perplexed.

“We are going to be the same things after that we were doing before, not enhanced mask policies or greater social distancing,” he said. “So we don’t understand why healthy student-athletes and teams that don’t have any trace of this variant can’t be practicing and competing right now.”

Twitter: @chengelis