Day after being told its leaders 'failed,' UM-Dearborn reverses course, reinstates spring sports

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Spring sports will be played at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, after all.

Earlier this week, UM-Dearborn athletes were told they would participate in practice-only beginning March 1 and would not compete in the Wolverine Hoosier Athletic Conference because other teams in the conference were not adhering to their school's strict COVID-19 protocols.

UM-Dearborn's campus.

But Friday, a day after an impassioned plea by a student-athlete at the virtual UM Regents meeting, in addition to the revelation of a meeting of conference athletic directors Thursday with “new information” regarding health and safety, UM-Dearborn spring sports will now be played.

“UM-Dearborn has prioritized the health and safety of our campus community from the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and has used these guideposts to reach decisions about university operations,” Ken Kettenbeil, U-M Dearborn vice chancellor for external relations, said in a statement Friday. “Over the past year, the university has made adjustments to guidelines and policies as new information has become available.

“On Thursday, February 18, the university learned that schools within the Wolverine Hoosier Athletic Conference are working to implement more stringent health and safety guidelines relating to their student-athletes, including ongoing testing plans and a mask policy. In addition, the athletic conference is working on a conference-wide policy that will help ensure the health and safety of all student-athletes. 

"These new policies align with those that UM-Dearborn’s athletics department developed in their return to training and competition plan.”

UM-Dearborn chancellor Domenico Grasso, during the Regents meeting on Thursday, said he planned to meet with Dr. Preeti Malani, UM’s chief health officer, to revisit the initial decision to cancel spring sports. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, sports resumed last fall with strict testing, but recently had a two-week pause at the urging of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services because of positive tests of a new COVID-19 variant. Individual teams also have had to pause since last fall because of outbreaks.

In the statement from Kettenbeil, UM-Dearborn’s return to spring competition is contingent upon other teams following testing and masking guidelines that UM-Dearborn has in place.

“We remain hopeful that the conference will finalize a conference-wide policy to protect all student-athletes during competitions,” he said in the statement.

During the UM Regents meeting, Grasso said UM-Dearborn conducted a survey of other athletic directors in the conference and “found out that most of them would not guarantee that they would follow our safety protocols.”

At that point, he said, his athletic department then recommended a return to practice-only on campus, a decision announced Wednesday.

“Since then, however, there was another meeting of athletic directors (Thursday) and new information has come to light,” Grasso said at the meeting. “So we are, as soon as possible, going to confer with Dr. Preeti Malani, our chief health officer, and revisit the decision in light of the new information.”

Back in June, UM-Dearborn made headlines when it was the first college in Michigan to cancel fall sports. In October, it paused sports through March 1, canceling its basketball seasons.

Madelin Skene, a UM-Dearborn softball team captain who saw her 2020 season wiped out because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said at Thursday's Regents meeting that while she was happy to hear the decision to cancel this spring’s season was under review, she delivered impassioned remarks to Grasso and the Regents and also Michigan president Mark Schlissel.

“I think the leaders of this university have failed to understand the ramifications and the negative impact their decisions have made on their student-athletes,” Skene said.

She challenged the existence of the survey Grasso said was sent to all the athletic departments in the conference, and shared results of a poll she took of 74 athletes at UM-Dearborn. The majority, Skene said, indicated their mental and physical health "had plummeted" without sports.

"We were not given a fair enough explanation, so I some of my own digging, because I said this is absolute crap," Skene told The Detroit News on Friday. "After the information I gathered, I was pretty fired up and I let them know."

Kettenbeil told The News the survey was actually two questions and conducted over the phone. He during the meeting with Malani, she felt comfortable with the testing in place at other conference schools and while not identical with UM-Dearborn was solid in terms of the frequency of testing. Her concern, he said, is more the attentiveness to mask wearing. He said the league is working toward a plan for more consistent protocols.

Skene said that while some questions remain unanswered and is disappointed in the lack of communication from and transparency within the university administration, she is pleased with the decision. She said she hopes her advocacy for UM-Dearborn athletics played a role.

"I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I really do think I did play a big role in this because as far as I’m concerned, the administration in the athletic department was left just about as much in the dark as we were," Skene said. 

"It just feels good. I feel like I’ve always been a leader in situations I’ve been put in, and in this case, it’s so hard as a leader and as a captain on my team to keep my team motivated when they have nothing to look forward to. And I know if it’s that way from my team, it’s the same for every other kid at the school.

Twitter: @chengelis