As the COVID crisis threatened to derail Cal’s season in early November, confusion soared within the football program.
Why had a handful of cases prompted mass testing of players and staff?
Why had a program with strict safety protocols been called out publicly by the City of Berkeley’s health officials, supposedly causing the players to be shamed on campus?
And most of all, why had a program with a 99% vaccination rate become the only team in major college football to have a game rescheduled because of the virus?
Coach Justin Wilcox was measured in his public comments throughout the two-week crisis. But privately, Wilcox and others were deeply frustrated with the handling of the situation by the university, according to a recording of a virtual meeting between team parents, Wilcox and Cal medical officials that was obtained by this news organization.
Midway through the hour-long meeting, the topic turned to the statement issued by Berkeley Public Health, which included previously unpublished case data and criticized the Bears for “ongoing” failures to follow public health protocols.
During a tense exchange, Wilcox asked assistant vice chancellor Guy Nicolette, who oversees University Health Services, if the statement constituted a violation of player privacy.
Nicolette explained that he disagreed with the tone of the statement — “I did not find that helpful” — but he declined to offer an opinion on the privacy issue, referring the matter to the university’s legal team.
Wilcox was not satisfied.
“Who’s fighting for us?” Wilcox asked in a passionate but controlled voice, according to the audio recording.
“I took the high road,” he continued. “We are taking the high road, as to not get into a public dispute with a city agency. So whose role is that? … Everybody’s wondering.”
Indeed, there are many unanswered questions about the crisis that blindsided the Bears for two weeks — all of them rooted in two fundamental but seemingly incongruous facts:
1. Why Cal?
There have been approximately 800 major college football games played this season, but only two are known to have been deeply impacted by COVID: Cal’s visit to Arizona, in which the Bears had a bare-bones roster, and Cal’s subsequent date with USC, which had to be rescheduled for Dec. 4 because so many players were in COVID protocol.
It was a striking development for a program that’s 99% vaccinated and, according to Wilcox, adheres to the COVID protocols recommended by Berkeley Public Health and the university. (The health department’s statement accusing the team of breaking protocol cited no specific instances.)
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 (approximately 100), coaches, staff and volunteers. The results revealed 46 positive cases, of which 31 were symptomatic, according to the university. It is not known how many of those cases — symptomatic or otherwise — were among players, rather than others in the program.
The exchange between Wilcox and Nicolette, the head of University Health Services, underscores the frustration inside the football program over the handling of the situation.
Asked days later about the criticisms from Berkeley Public Health, Wilcox told reporters:
“Is everybody perfect in following every protocol? I don’t know that I could say that. We do the best that we can. I have never had a meeting about the egregious non-compliance of our players. I haven’t had that meeting.
“Do we have to remind people from time to time to put their mask on? Have I been told that? Yeah, absolutely. And I would also think maybe there’s folks in the city of Berkeley walking down the street or going to church or dinner or whatever, maybe students on campus, that might fall into the same category.”
He was not nearly as dispassionate during the virtual meeting with university health officials and team parents.
According to sources, approximately 100 people were on the call. Most were team parents. Some were football staffers. A few were members of Cal’s medical team.
And then there was Steve Etter, who played two roles.
Etter is a longtime lecturer in the Haas School of Business and teaches a course on financial management for athletes. (His former students include quarterback Jared Goff, NBA star Jaylen Brown and Olympic swimmer Missy Franklin.) He’s also a former Cal trustee. And he’s the parent of a current player, long-snapper Daniel Etter.
Not only did Etter listen to the virtual meeting, he was an active participant and repeatedly pressed the medical experts for answers. In fact, Etter asked the toughest questions of all — particularly when it came to the lack of public support for the football program.
“The question is, who’s advocating for us?” Etter demanded of Nicolette. “Will anyone advocate? Or is that just no, no one’s going to advocate?”
In response to a request for comment by Nicolette, university spokesperson Janet Gilmore offered the following statement:
“Your questions are related to a conversation among (University Health Services) doctors, student-athletes and their parents about the health of the athletes. Consequently, we are not going to discuss the particulars of that meeting.
“Regarding the larger question related to the Berkeley Public Health statement, campus leaders have been and continue to be focused on mitigating the spread of COVID-19 by working in a productive manner with colleagues on and off campus — not engaging in a public back and forth. Further, please keep in mind that the campus is an employer and an educator, not a health department.
“The university cannot comment publicly on the substance of the BPH statement because we are not allowed to comment on information derived from medical records. The university did not have the opportunity to clear the BPH statement before it was released.”
Reached by phone days later, Etter explained why he pushed back so forcefully against Nicolette, the assistant vice chancellor.
“The athletes got quite a bit of negative reverberations on campus (during the crisis),” he said. “I felt the record should be set straight to avoid all the negativity the kids were getting as a result of that (statement).
“The raised voice and direct approach were because I have a lot of regard for Justin Wilcox. He asked a question, and I don’t have a lot of regard for fancy-dance answers.”
Not all the answers provided during the call were of the “fancy dance” variety.
Nicolette was straightforward in his assessment of the Berkeley Public Health statement, which included the following but offered no specifics:
“People in the program did not:
— Get tested when sick
— Stay home when sick
— Wear masks indoors”
Said Nicolette during the meeting:
“The statement released by Berkeley Public Health was not reviewed by University Health, by myself or anybody else that I know of. It wasn’t at the urging of (the university), nor do I agree with the statement.
“There were many factual elements to that, and they’re true. But I just simply do not agree with the release of that information, particularly in the tone and in the manner in which it was released. And I said as much directly to the public health official.”
At that point in the discussion, Wilcox jumped in: “You said much of it was factual. Which parts?”
“The fact that there is an outbreak … I agreed with the numbers they cited,” Nicolette responded. “I don’t have the press release in front of me so I can’t pick it point by point, but some of the information was directly taken from contact tracing. Where I worry about 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 up: “We can ask the experts here. Was there a violation of the privacy rights in the statement Berkeley made? … Would you consider that a violation of privacy?”
Nicolette: “I wouldn’t. That’s probably more for the legal team to answer.”
Wilcox: “You did disagree with some of what was said. You did mention that.”
Nicolette: “Yes, I did.”
Wilcox: “Who’s fighting for us? … I took the high road. We are taking the high road, as to not get into a public dispute with a city agency. So whose role is that? To advocate for what we are doing, trying to do, and following their guidelines, between the city of Berkeley, University Health Services — the guidelines that were set that we were following. Is that (the) athletic department? And maybe you don’t know the answer to that. Everybody’s wondering.”
Nicolette: “I know what I know. I certainly don’t know what other people are doing or not doing … We have worked with (Berkeley Public Health) closely trying to understand how they want us to implement the state and city protocols.”
Then Etter jumped in.
“Let me ask again, the part that Justin asked in his question, vice chancellor,” he said. “If other vice chancellors are criticized for an area under their operative, and it’s unfair — in other words, parts of the Berkeley statement were unfair — there’s a press conference and a battle back.
“And I think what Justin was asking is, everyone on this call has taken the high road. You’re the high-ranking guy as vice chancellor. I’ve seen all the other vice chancellors and chancellors on the news, I’ve seen our PR guy. There were several facts, and our children, as they walk around Berkeley now, as they’re seen by other students, are looked upon and frowned upon, based on false information.
“So Justin’s question was very specific: What are you doing to advocate for football?”
Nicolette: “You’ve given me a promotion that I did not earn. I just want to clarify that I’m not the vice chancellor. In direct response to your question, my approach really is twofold. One, we absolutely have to follow the Berkeley public health and —”
Etter: “The question is, who’s advocating for us? Will anyone advocate or is that just no, no one’s going to advocate?”
Nicolette: “I’m just telling you what I do in my approach.”
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