University of Michigan athletic officials are pessimistic about their ability to travel to Columbus in two Saturdays for their annual football game against Ohio State, three people with direct knowledge of the situation told the Free Press.
The pessimism comes as officials conduct contact tracing and await testing results on players and staff. At least a dozen members of the football program tested positive for COVID-19 earlier this week, causing a shutdown of the program and this Saturday's game against Maryland, sources said. The sources requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the outbreak.
The contact tracing and the concern about more positive tests stems from the hours after last week's loss to Penn State, the Free Press has learned.
According to the three sources, players were present at a number of small gatherings after the Penn State game to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday. It's hard to pinpoint the exact role of those gatherings in the outbreak, sources said, but there is belief in the program that Saturday played a role in accelerating the outbreak. The gatherings are believed to have taken place in settings among players and also in settings among parents and players, sources said.
U-M had worked to discourage any gatherings over the Thanksgiving weekend, including during a mid-week call last week with players' families to tell them not to gather, program spokesman Dave Ablauf told the Free Press.
It's not unusual for players to eat together, he added.
"Many of our players live together so they could have chosen to eat together just like any other day of the week; even though eating in groups has been discouraged by the staff throughout the season," Ablauf said. "In keeping with the daily plan and process, players were provided grab-and-go Thanksgiving meals so they could eat at their place of residence."
On Wednesday, Michigan announced it was pausing all in-person football activities until at least Monday. No decision has been made beyond that date, Ablauf said.
In his weekly news conference this week, Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh acknowledged at least one player tested positive before Saturday's game against Penn State. On Monday, the program shifted to virtual team activities while it awaited confirmatory testing results.
“Everybody’s tested daily," Harbaugh said Monday. "We’ve been tested four times since Friday and every day before that. Even if they’re a presumptive positive the day before the game, night before the game, they’re not allowed to play, which we’ve had, too.”
It's unclear what the current COVID-19 positivity rate is within the Michigan football program (Michigan athletics discloses combined positivity rates among all sports every Friday, but not team by team). According to Big Ten guidelines, teams must stop practicing and cease all competition when its population positivity rate — the number of positive tests divided by the number of people within a program, including players, coaches, support staff and medical personnel — exceeds 7.5%.
The outbreak comes despite Michigan being outspoken about its successful implementation of player safety protocols during the pandemic. The news has helped to fuel conspiracy theories — including from ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit — that the Wolverines, who are 2-4 this season, might try to avoid playing No. 4 Ohio State (4-0) to avoid an embarrassing defeat and also sabotage the Buckeyes' bid for a Big Ten championship. (OSU must play Saturday against Michigan State, then next week against the Wolverines to have enough games to qualify for the conference title game.)
Harbaugh is 0-5 as a coach against Ohio State.
"I have to pause because my words, the anger, I was infuriated by the insinuation that Michigan would do anything other than play a football game," Michigan athletic director Warden Manuel said Wednesday, in a stern rebuke of Herbstreit's comments. "We’ve been playing this game since 1879. We’re the winningest program for a reason, because we play whoever’s in front of us. The only way we want to keep anybody from moving on is to beat them on the field."
Despite the pessimism at Michigan, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said Thursday on his self-titled podcast that he was optimistic the game would be played. The Buckeyes were forced to cancel last week's game against Illinois because of a COVID-19 outbreak. But they were able to return this week without head coach Ryan Day, who tested positive for the novel coronavirus on Nov. 27.
“(Michigan) stopped (practicing) on Monday. So that gives them a good seven days to try and basically do what we did — to try to make the corrections that need to be made," Smith said. "I think they'll be back and we should be able to play unless they have a rash that’s uncontrollable. I know they want to play. I'm sure that they're working hard to make sure they have the chance to play.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football pessimistic about Ohio State as COVID details emerge