P.J. Fleck can sound like a preacher at a pulpit when he gets on a roll, but the Gophers football coach is often an easy guy to read when something is on his mind.
Such was the case last week on his weekly coach's show on KFAN. The Gophers had canceled their second consecutive game because of a COVID-19 outbreak. Naturally, the conversation with the hosts focused on updates about positive tests and managing that situation.
Fleck noted that no one was at fault, that his players did not deserve any blame. He said that repeatedly. I wondered if he had heard or read something that bothered him, or if he was talking more generally. I followed up for clarity.
"I'm just speaking in general," Fleck said. "I think there is a reputation with COVID-19 that if you get it, you must have done something wrong. Like, how did you get it? And where did you get it from?"
Especially with college kids. If there is a campus outbreak, the reaction is predictable: Was there a party? Did they go to bars? Were they not wearing masks or ignoring safety protocols?
When the Big Ten reversed its decision and decided to play football, I wrote that the onus is now on the players to be "invisible" on campus.
That's the only way this can work, I wrote at the time.
What a naive statement.
College football has been besieged by outbreaks. Fleck noted that more than 80 games have been either postponed or canceled. The Gophers account for two of those, despite daily testing and numerous safety measures in place.
Unfortunately, outbreaks happen, even if everyone is diligent in following protocols. Playing sports outside of a bubble is ripe for problems.
The Gophers had almost 50 positive cases among players, coaches and staff. Fleck heard from players who told him, "Coach, I followed every single thing, every protocol, everything we're doing, and I somehow still got it."
Fleck worries about the mental health component in all of this.
"I'm the one when they do test positive, I see them," he said. "I talk to them on FaceTime, and I see the tears and I see the disappointment."
The Gophers will return to action Saturday at Nebraska after a two-week layoff. They will be without 20-something players.
I applauded the Big Ten's decision to play sports during this pandemic, but I will admit that I have not spent enough time thinking about the mental toll it has taken on those involved. Listening to people inside the Gophers athletic department the past few weeks has provided new perspective.
Men's basketball coach Richard Pitino talked about seeing his players lined up to take their daily antigen test at 8 every morning. They wait 15 minutes to get the results, knowing a confirmed positive test will sideline them 21 days. No basketball. No games. Isolated from the team.
They go through this routine day after day.
"Every day when I get tested, I'm like, 'Is this the day?' " Pitino said. "As you get older, you have those coping mechanisms to be able to deal with the stress level. I don't know if they have that. I don't think adults have that right now in the middle of a pandemic."
Quarterback Tanner Morgan said there is "real anxiety" waiting on daily results, especially with an outbreak happening inside the program.
Athletes love competition. Playing a sport might be their only sense of normalcy right now. The idea of being sidelined for 21 days — three games in football — creates a lot of worry. Not to mention the fears and unknowns that come with contracting the virus, even if they are asymptomatic.
Everyone is making sacrifices right now. These young athletes, too.
Morgan acknowledged that his girlfriend gets tested and takes other precautions so they can see each other. After games, Morgan greets his parents from a distance because his father is still recovering after having surgery to remove a brain tumor.
Pitino calls every game played during this pandemic a "gift." Morgan says 2020 is a time to be "grateful for what you have."
They are both correct.