Since Ohio State athletes began to return to campus last June, COVID-19 testing has been an unavoidable reality in their lives.
During an interview for this week’s Real Pod Wednesdays, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said the athletic department had administered nearly 90,000 coronavirus tests over the past year, and sometimes more than 3,600 per week. Since the Big Ten implemented daily antigen protocols on Sept. 30, athletes who are in season have been tested six days a week, and that hasn’t been easy for them, especially before COVID-19 vaccines became widely available, as athletes who tested positive were initially ineligible to return to competition for 21 days (which was later reduced to 17 days before the College Football Playoff).
“The anxiety with testing, I don’t know if people understand that,” Smith told Eleven Warriors. “So if you’re a football player last fall, six days a week, every morning, you’re getting tested. So you have the anxiety building up to the test, and then you have the anxiety for 15 minutes or so or 20 after the test, waiting for the response. Right? Think about that.”
Now, though, Smith and the Ohio State athletic department can see the light at the end of the tunnel. As more and more people get vaccinated and COVID-19 health orders in Ohio and throughout the country begin to be lifted, Smith expects the next year in Ohio State sports to be far more normal than this past year.
The Big Ten’s daily antigen testing protocol is set to conclude on Sunday, which means Ohio State athletes will now be tested in accordance with the university’s testing protocol rather than by the athletic department. The university has not yet specified what testing requirements for students will be this summer, but has said that testing for students who are vaccinated “will be required once a month or less, while unvaccinated students will be tested once a week or more.”
Smith said it’s possible additional testing could be required for “congregate sports” like football, but he’s optimistic that won’t be necessary.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to just have our student-athletes fall within the university testing protocol, as opposed to us having to do an athletic department testing protocol,” Smith said. “But that’s really hard to project at this point.”
As of Thursday, 39.4% of Ohioans had been fully vaccinated while 44.9% of Ohioans had received at least one dose of the vaccine. Smith said he wants to see those numbers get closer to 70% “in order to feel much more comfortable.”
That said, Smith is confident most Ohio State athletes will get vaccinated even though the university and athletic department are not requiring vaccinations.
“We understand that student-athletes have different views around the vaccination, so we accept that and embrace that, but we are really doing our best to make sure we educate them,” Smith said. “And then they make a choice. And to me, I’m hopeful that all of our athletes get vaccinated. I haven’t actually been tracking it, but I’m hopeful that they do. But otherwise, you end up having to be tested. So that is a choice that they have to make.
“It won’t be similar to this year, I know that, because I think we’ll have a supermajority, if not all of our student-athletes vaccinated. So that will make a difference.”
As trying as this past year was for everyone within the Ohio State athletic department, Smith is proud of how OSU athletes and coaches handled the challenges associated with the pandemic. Over the course of the 2020-21 academic year, Ohio State’s varsity sports teams have competed in approximately 450 events. Twenty-six sporting events involving Ohio State teams were canceled due to COVID-19, but only four of those cancellations were triggered by outbreaks at Ohio State.
Smith attributes that to “great communication” throughout the athletic department as well as a high level of discipline from Ohio State athletes.
“We did a lot of different Zoom platform conversations with our coaches, our trainers, our strength coaches, our student-athletes. We were very diligent early on. And it was hard. It was really hard on everyone. But we did a really good job with emphasizing what level of care our student-athletes needed to embrace with the protocols,” Smith said. “So I’m really proud of them. Our coaches working with our trainers and strength coaches, just really being diligent on what you needed to do. Our student-athletes really put themselves in bubbles, many of them, and that’s a huge sacrifice on their part. And I know that many of them struggled throughout the year with maintaining that, but they embraced it and did it.”
“We understand that student-athletes have different views around the vaccination, so we accept that and embrace that, but we are really doing our best to make sure we educate them.” – Gene Smith
As Ohio State moves forward toward what it hopes will be a year without COVID-19 interruptions in 2021-22, Smith believes the adversity the Buckeyes had to overcome over the past year will help them deal with the challenges that could come their way not only for the rest of their Ohio State careers, but for the rest of their lives.
“Resiliency is something that we teach our student-athletes all the time anyway,” Smith said. “So I think this particular year will be able to show and demonstrate that that’s a lesson learned through sport participation and competition that you really need to embrace, because it’s going to be applicable to life forever, and the pandemic showed that. And then of course all the tools that we’re using now and will continue to use, I think will be beneficial to us as we move forward.”