Kansas State’s upperclassmen football players were the first to report back to campus earlier this month. The problems began with the newcomers — freshmen and transfers — who started to trickle in soon after.
K-State’s athletics department had reported the first 90 players tested for the coronavirus came back negative. More than 40 additional players were tested soon after, and of those, the total number of positive tests was 14 — one of the largest totals in the country among athletics programs that have reported their numbers publicly.
Athletics director Gene Taylor described how the outbreak began.
“We had the new guys starting to come in intermittently,” Taylor told The Mercury in a phone interview Monday night. “Four, five, six would get in at a time, and we’d test them and then we’d test the next group. So we tested them intermittently. The last group, I think, got in on a Thursday.”
That was June 11 — the day K-State announced all 90 athletes tested were in the clear. K-State didn’t receive the results of the June 11 tests until that Monday, June 15, however.
“They had gotten together with their buddies at some point over the weekend,” Taylor said, “and that’s where it started to spread.”
In an interview with KMAN Radio earlier Monday, Taylor noted the two infected players, unaware they were carrying the virus, met up with teammates from June 12 to 14.
“There (were) a couple of social gatherings — again, nothing terrible,” Taylor said. “I think probably a bunch of guys sitting around their apartments playing video games. I think there was something else, a pool party or something.”
From there, the number of positive cases began to rise. From two to four. Then four to eight. In its most recent tally, K-State announced Saturday 14 players have tested positive. Taylor didn’t acknowledge any additional active cases.
“It’s at least 14,” he said.
After the first two positives, Taylor said the next two cases were discovered after players showed up with high temperatures. They immediately were sent home and tested for COVID-19 again. This time, they came back positive.
“Those two guys could have been part of the close contacts during the weekend, or they could have been exposed before the weekend and started feeling bad Tuesday or Wednesday when they came in,” Taylor said. “So I don’t know if they were veterans or part of the second group of (new) guys. I honestly don’t know. But they could have been exposed. We just assumed they were exposed over the (June 12) weekend when those guys started hanging out together.”
The only active cases in K-State’s athletics department, Taylor said, are football players. No K-State Athletics employees or football coaches have tested positive.
“The only ones who have interaction with them are strength coaches,” Taylor said. “The (coaching) staff can’t see them. The trainers are there, but they’re masked and gloved when they walk in the building. So the only one who’s had interactions with them were the trainers.”
Taylor made sure to emphasize one point: The players who showed up last week with temperatures were allowed in the building only because they were part of the first group of 90 who tested negative.
“They had been cleared before, and somewhere got exposed over that weekend,” he said. “They were part of the initial 90, because they had been cleared to come into the building. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have even been able to come into the building.”
In its announcements surrounding testing, K-State Athletics hadn’t revealed whether any players previously had shown symptoms. Taylor acknowledged Monday that “we’ve had some symptomatic cases.” He didn’t know the exact figure, however.
“I think there were three kids that, between a couple of kids showing up and having a temperature and then a couple kids calling in (had symptoms),” Taylor said. “I don’t know (if) the rest of them were more asymptomatic. ... How many are actually even feeling badly? I don’t think anybody feels terribly, other than maybe a headache or some aches and maybe some temperatures. But nothing much more than that.”
Watching it unfold before his eyes, Taylor said “it’s amazing how quickly” the virus spreads.
He believes football players have learned an important lesson.
“You guys have got to wear your masks when you’re together and you’ve got to make sure you can stay apart from each other,” he said. “If they’d have done that, we’d have probably had less than half of those numbers.”
Taylor repeatedly returned to that assertion: If players only had worn masks and properly maintained social distancing, there’s no telling how much smaller the number of positive cases might be.
“And we probably wouldn’t have had to take the pause,” said Taylor, referring to the suspension of voluntary football workouts the athletics department announced Saturday. “But when nobody wears a mask, it just spreads that much further. But if our players always go out and have masks on wherever they go, then the chances of them becoming either close contact or becoming positive are much, much less.
“I don’t think (players) understood it at first. (It was like), ‘Nobody else is wearing a mask. Why should I wear a mask?’ I think now that they’ve seen it run through (the) football (program), they’re like, ‘OK, I get it now.’ Hopefully they’ll adhere to that, because I think that’s a huge way to keep it from spreading.”
How K-State ensures players will wear their masks and abide by social distancing guidelines, Taylor said, isn’t as difficult as one might think.
Think about it like an additional team rule.
“You know if you show up too late to lifting every day, you’re probably going to face some consequences. If you don’t go to your academic support, you’re probably going to face the consequences,” he said. “If we tell you you’re in quarantine or in isolation, and we hear that you’re out or you’re not wearing your mask or you’re not in quarantine, you’re probably going to face some consequences. What those are, I don’t know. That’s going to be up to (head football) Coach (Chris) Klieman.”
One potential penalty Taylor shot down: That K-State would strip athletes of their scholarships if they test positive. That’s nothing more than a rumor.
“Some parents heard that we said if their kid gets COVID, we’re going to take their scholarship,” he said. “No, that’s not the case.”
Another reason Taylor is hopeful that players will follow these pandemic-induced rules: He truly believes the framework of the football program has “good kids” at its center.
“Nobody did anything purposely,” he said. “They didn’t run out and say, ‘OK, I’ve got COVID. I’m going to go and spread it all over.’ That’s not the case. There’s just still a youthful mentality of, ‘Oh, I’ll be fine. I’m not going to get it.’ And sure enough, it’s gone through them. Fortunately, they’re young. For the most part, they’re not going to be very sick. They’re going to get over it in a couple of days, and hopefully they won’t face the chance of getting it again.”
Even that isn’t clear, though.
“People are saying you could get it again in a couple of months,” Taylor said. “So I just think we have to keep educating them and doing everything we can to stress the importance of following the advice of our medical folks.”
For Taylor, the most exasperating aspect of the positive tests isn’t necessarily K-State’s numbers. It’s that being transparent has worked to his department’s detriment — K-State now is cited in nearly every article written about the coronavirus’ effect on college athletics — while other schools seemingly fly under the radar.
Taylor is frustrated and flummoxed at the juxtaposition.
“I’m not sure every school out there (is) really reporting their numbers,” he said. “I don’t know how they cannot do that. I’m sure they’re reporting to their counties, but they’re not doing any sort of release, though I’m guessing there’s other schools that have as many, if not more, than we do right now.”
Taylor's full interview with KMAN Radio is featured in the embedded video below.