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As athletes return to campus, what are they signing up for?

From staff and wire reports
Missouri head football coach Eliah Drinkwitz, left, answers question from the media alongside athletic director Jim Sterk on Dec. 10 at the Show-Me Club in the South End Zone complex at Memorial Stadium.

Ohio State calls it the Buckeye Acknowledgment and Pledge, a two-page document the school asked its athletes to sign before they could begin using team facilities during the pandemic.

The document SMU is requiring its athletes to sign is much more direct: Acknowledgment of Risk for COVID-19 Summer 2020.

Across the country, universities have begun the process of getting ready to play through a public health crisis. As athletes return to campus, what are they signing up for?

Missouri is asking returning student-athletes to sign a pledge stating they will take seven coronavirus precautions while in Columbia. Those guidelines include self-monitoring their symptoms, practicing good hygiene (including proper hand-washing) and going through daily screenings.

“We’re learning new stuff every single day,” Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz said of the virus Wednesday, adding he was unaware of his players having to sign any document before resuming on-campus workouts. “What I advised our football team is to take this as an extreme threat, that they need to practice safe social distancing.”

Ohio State's athletic director said the Buckeyes program got the idea for its document from Big Ten rival Indiana. Baylor's AD said athletes there are being given a waiver and awareness form to sign.

How much legal protection any of these forms provide schools is up for debate, along with the ethics of requiring unpaid students to sign them.

"I worry that in some situations athletes are being used sort of as guinea pigs to demonstrate what we can and can't do as we bring regular students back to campus," said Karen Weaver, associate professor of sports management at Drexel. "I just don't think that's right."

SMU has made it clear that at least in part the purpose of its document is to mitigate the school's liability if an athlete contracts COVID-19. Ohio State has said its document is not intended to provide liability protection, though it was crafted with the help of legal counsel.

Nick Joos, Missouri’s deputy athletic director, told the Columbia Missourian this past week that athletes are signing a document but that the pledge does not constitute a waiver of liability.

At Missouri, athletes were asked in the document to “pledge to accept the responsibility to abide by these guidelines in order to keep myself, my teammates and the Mizzou athletics staff as safe as possible,” The Athletic reported.

The purpose of the MU document, as stated at the top, is to “protect all individuals,” “minimize the risk of exposure” and “mitigate the effects.”

For some experts, these documents at universities across the country present a gray area.

"I don't care what label they put on it," said Carla Varriale-Barker, an attorney in New York and chair of Segal McCambridge's sports, recreation and entertainment group. "They could call it a pledge, they could call it a waiver, they could call it a release, they could call it a cantaloupe. If you are signing away rights that you would otherwise have, it's a legally enforceable document and I would call it a waiver and release of claim."

If college football is to be played this season, schools will need to build protective bubbles around their teams, frequently testing players, tracing contacts of those who become infected and executing elaborate hygiene protocols. Even now a number of athletes have already tested positive at more than a dozen schools from Boise State to Clemson, though some schools, including Missouri, are not publicly releasing details.

There is only so much a school can do to shield its athletes from a virus they can pick up in a dorm, at a bar, grocery store or inside a church.

“I can’t restrict what they’re doing the other 21 hours, and they’re 18- to 22-year-old young men,” Drinkwitz said. “... Back in the day when you were 22, I mean, can somebody tell you what you can and can’t do? It’s hard.”

Educating athletes about risk and how to mitigate it is vital. Tapping into their sense of duty and dedication is a sound strategy to get them to modify behavior.

By having athletes sign a document acknowledging the risk of their participation, it can be argued the schools are using that commitment to the team as a legal shield — even if it doesn't use the explicit terminology of a waiver and ensures that scholarships will be honored.

Marc Edelman, a law professor at Baruch College who specializes in sports law, said even a permission slip can be used to claim a legal release of liability. Further muddling the legal questions, liability law varies from state to state. There may be pushback from the players: Some UCLA football players reportedly are demanding some protections of their own, including an independent health official to ensure virus protocols are being followed.

Varriale-Barker said schools asking athletes to sign any documents that could have legal ramifications should be going out of their way to make sure students and parents are aware of that.

And that the families may want to consult an attorney before signing.

"I'm less worried about this in the professional sports sense," Varriale-Barker said. "The people who really need this information are at the collegiate, high school, perhaps, even youth sports level."

The Associated Press and the Columbia Daily Tribune’s Kevin Graeler contributed to this report.