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Guerin Emig: Lincoln Riley, contact tracing and the complicated mess that is roster management amid COVID-19

Guerin Emig: Lincoln Riley, contact tracing and the complicated mess that is roster management amid COVID-19

091620-tul-spt-emigcolumn Riley

Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley points to an official during the Sooners' game against Missouri State on Saturday.

The Oklahoma football program’s struggle with the coronavirus, like everything connected to the coronavirus, is complicated and requires our understanding.

Coach Lincoln Riley touched on the complication and frustration Monday while looking back on his season-opening win over Missouri State, a game in which the Sooners had approximately 70 players suit up when they normally have closer to 120.

Was he disappointed over the shorthanded roster? Clearly.

“We as a team, everyone, have got to do better,” Riley said of OU’s pandemic-related discipline. “It can get out of hand and can become a big problem so quickly.”

He also said something very interesting about the virus’ impact opening night: “It wasn’t really one test. We actually had zero (positive COVID-19 test results) on Friday. It was a culmination, which can happen, especially with the contact tracing element. One or two positives can knock out a lot of people in a hurry.”

It isn’t just positive COVID cases cutting into OU’s, and several other teams’ rosters, right now. It is the protocol, contact tracing included, that follows.

“We’re very aggressive about removing anybody that could have had any potential contact,” Riley said recently. “We remove them from the team, put them in quarantine and then if the state health department deems that they weren’t a high-risk contact, then we’ve been able to add them back.”

An Oklahoma State Department of Health spokesperson confirmed to me Tuesday, the OSDH considers any individual who comes within six feet of someone with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes a high-risk contact, and the person so considered should then quarantine for 14 days.

Now we start to understand how contact tracing, and not just the sheer number of positive coronavirus test results, can endanger depth charts (Texas State’s tight end position was wiped out against SMU on Sept. 5), rosters (Tennessee canceled a recent scrimmage because of 44 unavailable players) and games (contact tracing was involved in the recent cancellation of TCU-SMU and BYU-Army).

Now we start to see how complicated this is. How one or two positive tests can ripple through a team, even one that is generally doing right by safety and protocol. How a player can go to exhaustive lengths to protect himself and still face quarantine because of 15 minutes of time and six feet of space.

“It’s excruciating,” Riley said Tuesday.

He also said: “A guy can hit on a contact trace and not have the virus. And I will say the high majority of our contact trace guys have not had the virus or gotten the virus. And then he can come back and hit on another contact trace. All of a sudden, that’s 28 days. I mean, gone.

“That has been difficult because not only do you have that, but then those guys obviously haven’t got the virus and haven’t built up any type of immunity. So they’re still susceptible to hitting on a contact trace or the virus.”

It’s exasperating. And it somehow gets worse when we hear Riley explain where the Sooners are getting ensnared. It isn’t on the practice field or weight room, where we might expect.

“Of our contacts, the majority have been guys that are roommates of somebody that tested positive,” Riley said. “We have seriously reduced our number of, I guess what you would call, contact traces that we could have avoided. Doing something dumb, going to a restaurant with somebody, getting into a car with somebody. We’ve really made some big improvements there.

“But the one thing that’s really tough to get around unless you just sit there at home and wear a mask all day, which is difficult for everybody to do, is the roommate situation.”

It isn’t playing football that necessarily drives up the degree of difficulty right now, although that can be difficult enough. It is day-to-day living.

“I will say there are a lot of examples of our guys wearing masks at home, in their apartments or out,” Riley said. “That’s been shown to be very, very effective. It still comes down to you’ve got to wear a mask when you’re around anybody.

“It’s hard, but it’s part of it. If you want to play, you want to be around it, it’s just what you’ve got to do.”

And then you’ve got to hope you aren’t around the wrong teammate for the wrong amount of time in the wrong proximity. Say, 15 minutes six feet apart.

Not at some off-campus party. Not at some crowded restaurant. Not at the bottom of a line-of-scrimmage pile.

It could be two teammates just kicking back in their living room Saturday night, watching highlights of the game they just played on SportsCenter, masks removed long enough for bites of Doritos or swigs of Gatorade.

Make that simple a mistake and you run the risk of missing your next two games.

Which goes to show us there is nothing simple, at all, about this infuriating pandemic.

Video: Spencer Rattler reflects on his stellar debut

View from the field: See the best images from Oklahoma’s season opener against Missouri State

Guerin Emig


Twitter: @GuerinEmig

Guerin Emig


Twitter: @GuerinEmig

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Sports Columnist

I'm the proud father of Gretchen and Holden. Devoted husband to Christy, who has been my best friend since biology class at Booker T. Washington. I covered the OU Sooners for 15 years. That was both challenging and rewarding. Now I get to write columns.

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