Joe Castiglione had an eventful Thanksgiving break.
In a Thursday Zoom press conference, OU’s athletics director recounted the COVID-19 chaos that led up to the holiday.
On Nov. 25, the men’s basketball program postponed contests against UTSA and UCF due to coronavirus precautions and contact tracing. Later that day, the football program paused team activities and postponed its Nov. 28 game at West Virginia to Dec. 12. And then on Thanksgiving day, the women’s basketball program announced its withdrawal from the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic in South Dakota as it monitored a coronavirus situation.
Late on Nov. 30, the athletic department released its latest COVID-19 testing data from Nov. 22-28, revealing 40 new cases among student-athletes and staff and a positive test rate of nine percent — the highest that figure had been in 13 weeks.
“We never knew when it would happen (or) how it would happen, and certainly, we hoped it wouldn't happen,” Castiglione said of the virus outbreak in the department. “But we couldn't be naive, either. The interesting part of last week, really, was that it happened all at once.”
In the aftermath of a surge in cases, the men’s basketball team is set to tip off against UTSA at 7 p.m. CT Thursday, but the football squad’s status still remains in limbo.
Here’s what Castiglione said about a wild week in Norman and continued uncertainty within his department:
Football vs Baylor
Oklahoma needs one more victory to clinch a spot in the Big 12 Championship game on Dec. 19. As of Wednesday, the Sooners appeared to be in the clear to face Baylor in their home finale Saturday, but a final rapid testing period on Friday will be the deciding factor in the contest’s playability. Castiglione is hoping to finish the season well.
“Some weeks, we've had a little bit more of a concern than others, just because of numbers. In this particular case, we're going test to test, and hopefully we have good results like we've had the previous two this week.
“Going back to August, we said then that if we were to have a football season, we would make sure that it can be done in a safe and healthy manner. … So for us, we're nearing the finish line is, obviously, (it’s going to) continue to be challenging, and we're gonna do the best we can to try to complete a season.”
Fans at home games
Despite some of the compliance issues the department has faced while enforcing COVID-19 precautions in the stands at football games this fall, Castiglione said he doesn’t plan to change the fan allowance policies at this time.
OU banned fans not on a pass list from home soccer and volleyball games during the fall, but is allowing limited ticketed attendance at football and basketball games.
“We're constantly reinforcing the protocols for them to be there, wearing masks, the distancing, washing hands, and obviously, when you've taken precautions all year long, to be able to provide the safest fan experience. Now, if the leaders within our state or other experts provide us information where it would be in our interest to either reduce or eliminate fans coming to the game, we certainly would. And that's something we're monitoring all the time.”
Castiglione admitted mental health among athletes and coaches has been a continued battle during the pandemic. He said the athletic department has hired an additional full-time employee to its psychological resources staff to help the situation, but he hopes the present state of social interaction is not the long-term future.
“By nature, we want to be together. We don't want to be standing 10 or 12 feet apart all the time. We grow as people by learning from each other. And yes, I'm glad that we have technology like (Zoom) that can supplement versus having this happen in a period of time where we didn't have it, but it's not a good substitute in the long run. We're using it. Obviously we’ll make the most of it. But in the long run, we're better being together. We're better having more natural interaction with everybody."