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Big Ten Football Players as 'Guinea Pigs'? Critics Raise Concern Over Promises to Study Covid-19 Impacts

"University leadership needs to reflect on what they're asking of students. The mere fact they promise to study the infected indicates that they don't know enough about the disease to protect the students."

Michigan Wolverines players huddle together during the Vrbo Citrus Bowl against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Camping World Stadium on January 1, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Sparking critics' warnings that young college athletes are being used as "guinea pigs" to study the effects of a virus which is still in many ways a mystery to public health experts, Big Ten schools announced Wednesday that the conference's football season will proceed—even as the schools suggested they fully expect many sudent-athletes to contract the coronavirus.

In addition to providing daily rapid testing and "enhanced cardiac screening" to players and team personnel beginning September 30, ahead of the first games scheduled for the weekend of October 24, the 14 Big Ten universities will compile "a cardiac registry in an effort to examine the effects on Covid-19 positive student-athletes."

"The registry and associated data will attempt to answer many of the unknowns regarding the cardiac manifestations in Covid-19 positive elite athletes," the conference's announcement read. The conference added that students who test positive will undergo "comprehensive cardiac testing."

Minneapolis-based attorney Will Stancil compared the plan to the Tuskegee Institute experiments on 600 Black men which began in 1932 and in which researchers, without informed consent of the patients, studied the effects of untreated syphilis on the men.  

"We're going to more-or-less intentionally infect a bunch of (disproportionately nonwhite) student athletes with Covid-19 by making them play sports for our entertainment, then use them to study the heart damage caused by Covid-19," Stancil tweeted.

"University leadership needs to reflect on what they're asking of students," Stancil wrote. "The mere fact they promise to study the infected indicates that they don't know enough about the disease to protect the students, who will have no practical choice but to play, and to become infected."

Dr. Kristie Holmes, a mental health clinician in California, tweeted that the plan to offer "enhanced screening" and examine the effects of Covid-19 on college students—after thrusting them into a situation in which social distancing is impossible and infection is likely—is not "reassuring."

"The damage will already have been done," Holmes wrote.

ESPN sports journalist Bomani Jones echoed the concern that the student-athletes are being used as medical "guinea pigs."

The conference's announcement further indicated that the chancellors and presidents of the Big Ten schools are preparing for Covid-19 outbreaks among the student-athletes, detailing the positivity rates that would necessitate the cancellation of games and practices.

Teams will be ordered to stop playing for seven days if a positivity rate among team members is greater than 5%, but a positivity rate between 2% and 5% will allow games to continue.  In the schools' larger communities, the teams will only be required to stop playing and practicing if the positivity rate exceeds 7.5%—greater than the rate that global public health experts advise as the threshold for governments to consider reopening their economies. 

Six of the Big Ten schools—Penn State, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State, and Nebraska—are in counties where new cases are currently averaging more than 30 per 100,000 people per day, according to the Washington Post.

The Pac-12 Conference, which includes 12 universities in the West, is currently the only Power Five athletic conference which is maintaining its earlier decision to postpone its football season. Other conferences which went ahead with their seasons have already had to postpone several games due to Covid-19 outbreaks. 

At least one Big Ten school has also had the beginning of its school year disrupted by the pandemic as administrators forged ahead with inviting students back to campus; at least 342 people at Michigan State University have tested positive and all students have been called on to self-quarantine through September 26. 

Several of the Big Ten schools are in battleground states key to President Donald Trump's reelection campaign; the president has advocated for the season to move forward and spoke with conference Commissioner Kevin Warren earlier this month in what both called a "productive conversation."

"It is my great honor to have helped!!!" tweeted Trump on Wednesday after the conference made its announcement. 

However, one Big Ten university president told NBC News that the president's push had "nothing to do with our decision" and that "when his name came up, it was a negative." 

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