As the COVID crisis threatened to derail Cal’s season in early November, confusion within the football program grew.
Why did the handful of cases lead to mass testing of players and staff?
Why was an event with strict safety protocols publicly called off by Berkeley city health officials, leaving players to shame on campus?
And above all, why did a program with a 99% vaccination rate become the only team in major college football to reschedule the game because of the virus?
Coach Justin Wilcox was measured in his public comments during the two-week crisis. But privately, Wilcox and others were deeply disappointed by the university’s handling of the situation, according to a recording of a virtual meeting between the team’s parents, Wilcox, and Cal medical officials, obtained by this news organization.
In the middle of the hour-long meeting, the topic changed to a statement issued by Berkeley Public Health, which included previously unpublished case data and criticized Beers for “ongoing” failures to adhere to public health protocols.
During a tense exchange, Wilcox asked assistant vice-chancellor Guy Nicollet, who oversees university health services, if the statement violated player privacy.
Nicolette explained that he disagreed with the tone of the statement—”I didn’t find that helpful”—but declined to offer an opinion on the issue of confidentiality, citing the matter to the university’s legal team.
Wilcox was not satisfied.
“Who’s fighting for we?” According to the audio recording, Wilcox asked in an emotional but controlled voice.
“I took the high road,” he continued. ,we Taking the high road not to get into a public dispute with the city agency. So whose role is that? …everyone is thinking.”
In fact, there are many unanswered questions about the crisis that blinded the bears for two weeks—all rooted in two fundamental but seemingly incompatible facts:
1. Why Cal?
Nearly 800 major college football games have been played this season, but only two are known to be deeply affected by COVID: Cal’s trip to Arizona, which the Bears had a bare-bones roster of, and with USC. Cal’s later date, which was to be rescheduled for December 4 because so many players were in the COVID protocol.
It was a remarkable development for a program that was 99% vaccinated and, according to Wilcox, follows the COVID protocols recommended by Berkeley Public Health and the University. (The health department statement did not give any specific example accusing the team of breaking protocol.)
2. How did the crisis happen?
According to information obtained by this news organization, the university tested 172 members of the football program, including players (about 100), coaches, staff and volunteers. According to the university, the results showed 46 positive cases, of which 31 were symptomatic. It is not known how many players tested positive or were symptomatic.
The exchange between Wilcox and Nicolette, the head of University Health Services, underscores the frustration within the football program over the handling of the situation.
Asked a few days later about his criticisms of Berkeley Public Health, Wilcox told reporters:
“Is everyone right in following all protocols? I don’t know if I can say that. We do our best. I’ve never had a meeting about the serious non-compliance of our players. I didn’t have that meeting. happened.
“Do we have to remind people to put on their mask from time to time? Have I been told this? Yes, absolutely. And I would also think that maybe people in downtown Berkeley are walking down the street or going to church or dinner or whatever, maybe students on campus, that could fall into the same category.
He wasn’t nearly as apathetic during a virtual meeting with university health officials and the team’s parents.
According to sources, around 100 people were on the call. Most of the team was parents. Some were football workers. Some were members of Cal’s medical team.
And then there was Steve Ater, who played two roles.
Etter is a longtime lecturer at the Haas School of Business and teaches a course on financial management for athletes. (His alumni include quarterback Jared Goff, NBA star Jaylen Brown and Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin.) He is also a former Cal trustee. And he’s the parent of a current player, the long-timer, Daniel Aiter.
Eater not only overheard the virtual meeting, he was an active participant and repeatedly pressured medical experts for answers. In fact, Eater asked the toughest questions of all – especially when it came to the lack of public support for the football program.
“The question is, who is defending us?” Ater demanded Nicolette. “Will someone advocate? Or is it not at all, no one to advocate?”
In response to a request for comment by Nicolette, university spokeswoman Janet Gilmore offered the following statement:
“Your questions pertain to conversations between (University Health Services) doctors, student-athletes and their parents about the health of athletes. As a result, we are not going to discuss the details of that meeting.
“Regarding the larger question relating to the Berkeley Public Health Statement, campus leaders have focused and continue to focus on reducing the spread of COVID-19 by working productively with colleagues on and off campus – in a public back Not included and so forth. Also, please be aware that the campus is an employer and a teacher, not the health department.
“The university cannot comment publicly on the essence of the BPH statement because we are not allowed to comment on information obtained from medical records. The university did not have the opportunity to clear the BPH statement prior to release.
Reached by phone a few days later, Eater explained why he pushed so forcefully against Assistant Chancellor Nicollet.
“The athletes got a lot of negative feedback on campus (during the crisis),” he said. “I felt that the record should be set straight to avoid all the negativity that children may receive as a result of that (statement).
“The raised voice and direct approach was because I have a lot of respect for Justin Wilcox. He asked a question, and I don’t hold much respect for fancy-dance answers.”
Not all answers given during the call were of the “fancy dance” type.
Nicolette Berkeley was direct in her assessment of the public health statement, which included the following but provided no details:
“People in the program didn’t:
– Get tested if you are sick
– stay home when sick
– Wear a mask inside the house”
Nicolette said during the meeting:
“The statement issued by Berkeley Public Health was not reviewed by University of Health, by me or anyone else I know. It was not at the urging of (the university), nor do I agree with the statement .
“There were a lot of factual elements in it, and they’re true. But I just don’t agree with the release of that information, especially in its tone and the way it was released. And I said directly to the public health official. “
At that point in the discussion, Wilcox jumped in: “You said a lot of it was factual. Which parts?”
“The fact that there is an outbreak … I agree with the numbers they quoted,” Nicolette replied. “I don’t have the press release in front of me so I can’t pick it point wise, but some of the information was taken from direct contact tracing. Where I’m concerned is, again, the release of confidential information through that contract tracing process. Where they have the right, I don’t think it was the right thing to do.”
Wilcox followed: “We can ask the experts here. Was there a violation of privacy rights in Berkeley’s statement? … Would you consider that a violation of privacy?”
Nicolette: “I wouldn’t. It’s probably overkill for the legal team to answer.”
Wilcox: “You disagreed with what I said. You mentioned it.”
Nicolette: “Yeah, I did.”
Wilcox: “Who’s Fighting For” we, … I took the high road. we Taking the high road not to get into a public dispute with the city agency. So whose role is that? To advocate for what we’re doing, and to follow their guidelines, between the City of Berkeley, University Health Services – the guidelines that were set out that we were following. Is that the (athletic) department? And maybe you don’t know the answer. Everybody’s thinking.”
Nicolette: “I know what I know. I certainly don’t know what other people are doing or not doing… We’ve worked with (Berkeley Public Health) to try to understand what How they want us to implement state and city protocols.
Then Ater jumped in.
“I ask again, what Justin asked in his question to the Chancellor,” he said. “If other VCs are criticized for an area under their operation, and it is unfair – in other words, parts of Berkeley’s statement were inappropriate – there is a press conference and a fight back.
“And I think what Justin was asking is that everyone on this call has taken the high road. You’re a highly placed person as VC. I’ve seen all the other VCs and VCs on the news, I Have seen your PR man. There were many facts, and our kids, when they now roam around Berkeley as they are seen by other students, are seen and laughed at by false information .
“So Justin’s question was very specific: What are you doing to advocate for football?”
Nicolette: “You’ve given me a promotion I haven’t earned. I just want to clarify that I am not the Vice Chancellor. In direct answer to your question, my approach is actually twofold. One, we absolutely have to follow Berkeley’s Public Health and—”
Eater: “The question is, who is advocating for us? Will someone advocate or not, there is no one to advocate?”
Nicolette: “I’m going to tell you what I do in my approach.”
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