PISCATAWAY, NJ—Just one week after releasing their fall football schedule, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced Rutgers University and the rest of their athletic conference to delay all games and competitions until next year.
Undoubtedly a factor in the Big Ten Conference’s decision was a high-profile outbreak of the virus among the Rutgers University football team, which had to be quarantined inside their dormitories on Busch campus.
As Big Ten officials weighed their options, Rutgers University’s Athletics Department refused to answer key questions from the press about the outbreak, and still has not come clean about the extent of the team’s cases.
According to the state’s largest newspaper, as of August 3, 28 members of the Rutgers football team had contracted the dreaded coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
But officials never confirmed those numbers, and even after the season cancellation announcement, and would not say how many confirmed cases there were on the team.
“The athletic department must be more transparent with its test results,” wrote NJ.com’s Steve Politi, noting “the program is trying (and failing) to guard the information like a midseason injury report.”
“I don’t have an update on this,” said Hasim Phillips, a team spokesperson, who New Brunswick Today repeatedly asked for information. “When I do, I will provide.”
Athletic Director Patrick Hobbs did not respond to our questions on why Rutgers hasn’t updated the public on the extent of the COVID-19 outbreak involving the football team, and if he felt the situation and the handling of it contributed to the Big Ten’s decision to call off 2020’s football schedule.
Even more than a week after the Big Ten’s decision, university officials still would not say how many players had gotten infected by the virus.
On August 11, the Big Ten became the first of the so-called “Power Five” conferences to call off the fall season. The previous plan involved a season of exclusively in-conference games in largely empty stadiums on dormant campuses, beginning here with a September 5 game against Nebraska.
Even if games were held in Piscataway, under current emergency regulations, no more than 500 people could attend the games, less than 1% of the maximum possible attendance at the football stadium.
Throughout the high-profile debate on the fall season, the Rutgers University athletic department has apparently concealed from the public the true extent of the coronavirus outbreak taking place here in Piscataway.
The entire football program has been quarantined since July 25, according to the official statement made that day, indicating a total of ten positive cases, without differentiating between players or coaches.
“As a result, we have paused all in-person team activities, quarantined our entire program and will work diligently with Rutgers medical experts, and state and local officials to determine next steps,” read the brief statement.
But no further steps were made public, even as the Star-Ledger’s Keith Sargent reported cases had nearly tripled to 28, about a quarter of the entire roster.
Asked for an updated total of positive cases after the revelations in Sargent’s reporting, the team spokesperson told this reporter to look at the July 25 statement: “We provided the below statement to media on Saturday, July 25 and have made no additional comment since.”
Asked a follow-up question about the team’s testing protocol, Phillips said: “Don’t have anything else to add here.”
After we asked how frequently players were being tested, and if Rutgers was meeting Big Ten standards, Phillips said that the protocols requiring twice-weekly testing would not go into effect until “the start of the competitive season.”
It’s still unclear how frequently the team is being tested and how many players have contracted the virus.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.