USAU followed its policies, but teams were upset when they were threatened with sanctions if they tried to forfeit.
August 17, 2021 by Charlie Eisenhood in News with 0 comments
Nearly every tournament recap in 2021 has opened with a comment about how happy everyone was to be back out on the field competing. The same joyous return was not the story at the Select Flight Invite West this past weekend. Instead, frustration and discomfort permeated the Silverlakes field complex east of Los Angeles.
The animating event of the weekend occurred halfway through the first round on Saturday. A vaccinated player on #23 Dallas Public Enemy — who had received a negative COVID-19 test result on Friday before the tournament via her routine testing schedule — woke up on Saturday feeling mild COVID-19 symptoms and left the hotel to get tested while the rest of the team made their way to the fields to start their weekend. When the player called the team to inform them of a positive test result later that morning, Public Enemy stopped their first-round game against Berkeley DR and brought the result to the attention of their opponents, tournament director, and USA Ultimate. The infected player never came to the field.
USAU instructed Public Enemy to immediately isolate any players who may have been at risk of having close contact with the player who tested positive — meaning anyone who rode in a car, stayed in a hotel room, or ate a meal with the infected player — and await further instructions. The other half of Public Enemy and DR then continued and finished their first-round game.
Will Deaver, USAU’s Managing Director of Competition, quickly began the process of collecting facts and contact tracing within the Dallas team, while also getting in touch with the governing body’s medical advisory working group to confirm that they were following the appropriate steps based on the return to play policy they already had in place. Following guidance both from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and local public health authorities, USAU determined that Public Enemy’s two unvaccinated players that had been in close contact with the infected player would need to immediately leave the complex. Everyone else on the roster, including vaccinated players who had shared a hotel room with the player who tested positive, were allowed to continue playing. The CDC does not recommend that fully vaccinated people quarantine following close contact with someone infected with COVID-19 unless they have symptoms.
As is consistent with the policy in place for the event, the USAU medical group asked that the players who had close contact monitor themselves for any symptoms and get tested in 3-5 days time, as any immediate test was unlikely to show meaningful results so soon after exposure.
Ahead of each game, Public Enemy informed their opponents of the situation and, despite not being required to do so, offered to wear masks during competition. While these one-off conversations became a staple of Dallas’ day, rumors regarding the positive test started to spread to other teams.
After a second-round bye, Dallas played and won their second pool play game against California Burrito, setting up a pool-winners crossover game against #3 San Francisco Mischief to determine seeding in Sunday’s bracket play.
In discussions before that game that delayed the start more than an hour, Mischief players voiced concern about playing the game and asked the tournament director if they could skip or forfeit the game. PE was amenable to that decision; the crossover round was for seeding purposes only, and Mischief said they would reconsider the decision in the event of a Sunday bracket play rematch. They were told by the tournament director Grant Boyd and USAU event director David Raflo that forfeiting the game would mean they would need to forfeit the remainder of the tournament and that the team could face additional future sanctions, as outlined in the Club Guidelines, citing a competitive advantage to both teams if the crossover round was skipped and asking if there were any accommodations under which Mischief would play.1 Mischief agreed to play a shortened game, with masks, where only teammates that felt comfortable competing would play. After jumping out to an early lead, Public Enemy won the crossover 11-10.
“We understand people’s hesitance regarding the situation because we are in a pandemic — it is COVID,” said Public Enemy captain Chris Pleshek. “We are following USAU’s guidelines and going beyond that in our games to try to ensure safety. Safety is still our number one priority. But we are going with what the medical professionals are telling us right at this point.”
USA Ultimate and tournament staff did not communicate with teams other than Public Enemy about the positive COVID test and the decision-making process. On Saturday night, teams in the championship bracket who were looking ahead to a potential Sunday matchup with Public Enemy began trying to gather what information they could and reached out to the tournament director and USAU to figure out what their options were.
Reno Cutthroat, Dallas’ quarterfinal matchup that was scheduled to be filmed on the showcase field, attempted to reach the Public Enemy leadership late on Saturday night to share their concerns, but by that point, most of Public Enemy was already asleep. San Francisco Polar Bears, who could have faced Public Enemy in the second round on Sunday2, also reached out to the tournament director and USAU to voice their discomfort with a possible matchup. In each case, teams were told the same thing that Mischief heard: any forfeit would mean forfeiting the remainder of the tournament and could result in further sanctions.
“When we messaged the TD about it asking for additional information, they gave us a response that said that no one came to the field that was a positive COVID test, and that they were following CDC and USAU guidelines,” said Cutthroat captain Miguel Gonzales. “But they wouldn’t give us any other information about how many other people on the team were tested, which was one of our big concerns. If other people have been tested and cleared, it might have been a different story. But we just didn’t know and have that information. So with that information, we polled our team. People on our team were interested in playing if the other team had been tested and the other players had been tested negative. And some people weren’t comfortable playing at all.”
On Sunday morning, when Cutthroat again voiced that they would prefer not to play their quarterfinal against Public Enemy but were again told they would be done for the weekend and would face future sanctions, they agreed to play with both teams fully masked. Reno sent seven players out on the line, pulled, and then had each player walk toward their sideline as Public Enemy centered the pull and threw an open huck to an uncovered player. Now on offense, Cutthroat kept the same seven players on the field, let Dallas’ pull hit one of their players, and once again walked toward their sideline and allowed Public Enemy to convert a quick score. On the third point, Cutthroat intentionally turfed a first throw before walking off. 3-0, Dallas.
“Our players’ comfort level is number one,” said Cutthroat captain Morgan Greenwood. “And if even one person says they’re uncomfortable, we’re going to make a decision based on that. And with a majority of the team uncomfortable, that was enough for us to make a decision to do all we had to do to keep everyone safe.”
The game proceeded in the same fashion until 10-0, at which point USAU’s event manager stopped the game, convened team captains and the observers, and said that if Cutthroat continued to not be competitive, they would be judged to have forfeited the game and have their captains barred from playing in the first two games at Sectionals in the same way as if they never took the field.
After the five-minute discussion, Cutthroat sent out seven players, centered a pass, and threw an early huck that their player came down with for their first goal of the game. They then pulled and played a very loose zone defense against the Public Enemy offense, trying to avoid ever having any player within six feet of a Dallas player but still forcing the offense to work the disc slowly up the field. The game quickly finished 15-2, with neither team happy about the outcome of the game.
“We’re trying to do the right thing. We get how people feel. We don’t want to be a problem,” said Dallas coach Adam Goff.3 “But we’ve got to figure out what the right thing to do is.”
“It is unfortunate that we had to find out about this situation from other teams late Saturday and were forced to make a decision based on second hand information,” Cutthroat wrote on Twitter. “We appreciate the openness of Public Enemy once we were able to get in contact Sunday morning. We applaud the initiative taken by the COVID positive PE player to recognize symptoms, prioritize the safety of others, and openly communicate their situation with their team, and we wish them a safe and speedy recovery. We have not heard anything additional from USAU yet, but we stand behind our decision to prioritize the health and safety of our teammates.”
Dallas made their way to the next field over to await their semifinal opponent, watching as Polar Bears and #24 Los Angeles Lotus played out a universe point quarterfinal. When Lotus emerged victorious, USAU’s event manager was on hand to immediately begin discussions of what the options were for each team.
When Lotus decided they did not want to play the game, Public Enemy offered to forfeit the game instead so that Lotus could advance and continue to play. Dallas was told that a forfeit could result in the same future sanctions as any other team that forfeited, so they were at a stalemate, with neither team wanting to officially be the one who forfeited. Eventually, Lotus formally forfeited and Dallas, after consulting with USAU to ensure they would not face penalties for doing so, decided that they would withdraw from the remainder of the event to avoid putting any other team in a similar position. With no team emerging from that side of the bracket, the semifinal between Mischief and #11 Arizona Lawless played out as the de facto tournament final. Lawless won 13-12.
“We are trying to be as understanding as possible,” said Public Enemy’s Pleshek. “It is still frustrating coming to a game, hoping to play, and then not really playing. But I mean, it’s a weird mental space for sure. Because on one hand, I understand wanting to be very cautious. But we’re trying to follow all the CDC guidelines and trying to be as safe as possible.”
Almost everyone in the mixed division left the event unhappy. At the fields, over meals after the tournament, and on social media, players and teams were vocal in their criticism of the decisions made, both by Public Enemy for continuing to play — even as they followed and went further than the recommendations of USAU’s medical working group — and by event organizers. But the loudest and harshest criticism was reserved for the national governing body, who many said were forcing teams to play in unsafe conditions or threatening them with unnecessary sanctions for a tournament whose results ultimately do not matter at all this season.
Sanctions for throwing a game due to COVID-19 concerns? USAU may wanna re-think this policy. 👏🏼 @cutthroatulti
— Doug Greenwood (@douggreenwood) August 15, 2021
We canceled an entire season of play for COVID but also if you don’t play against the COVID exposed team we’ll sanction you #LiveUltimate #legitimacy
— social club ultimate (@socialclubulti) August 15, 2021
USAU maintained that they were sticking by the same principles they have always led with in their return to play plan: listen to the advice of medical experts.
“[Barring Public Enemy from playing] is not following the CDC guidelines and also state and local guidelines,” said Deaver. “We have discussed other scenarios, and we will continue to discuss them. But, as of the event in question, we didn’t have a policy to remove a team or to remove players beyond what CDC guidance would dictate.”
Some teams also felt that the Event Guide distributed by the tournament director ahead of the event directly contradicted this position, believing that it implied the tournament would go further than CDC and local guidance. The first bullet point under the “COVID Protocols” section of the Event Guide read: “Athletes, organizers, and coaches are expected to NOT participate if they feel under the weather, sick, or have come in contact with someone that may be sick.”4
For many, the largest frustration was one that has become a common criticism of USAU: lack of communication. The governing body did not proactively reach out to all teams in the bracket, instead opting to let teams take their day round-by-round and only addressing their comfort level in playing once they were officially scheduled to play Public Enemy. Once they were discussing options with teams, they felt USAU was threatening them and moving the burden of tough decisions to the teams rather than making a decision to call off the tournament where so many were voicing discomfort.
“If [Public Enemy] and USA Ultimate had come to us saying, ‘Hey, here’s information, just laying it all out, it would have been different. But we had to pull it from GroupMes and other teams. And that was the frustrating part. We just felt unprepared and unequipped to make a full decision,” said Cutthroat’s Greenwood. “We understand [Public Enemy] were just following what USAU were saying, that they told them that it was safe. And so it’s more just the communication, that was the issue. Or rather, lack of communication, lack of transparency from USAU.”
In a statement from team captains, Mischief shared similar concerns about USAU’s communications in this situation.
“As a leadership group, we came into the tournament with a known expectation that COVID-related issues might arise and we’d address them as best we could. We aim to approach the community with spirit, respect, and empathy, both on field and in these matters. In particular, the Delta variant has changed health risk assessments, with different players and different teams having understandably different comfort levels given Delta. Aligning a safe return to play in all of this is difficult, so we both appreciate and support the volunteers, TDs, medical professionals, USAU staff, and others working to make this happen for us (the players). Still, we constructively suggest that USAU’s communication of their medical committee’s decision, the rationale(s) behind that decision, and USAU’s belief that they must strictly enforce it — all of that might have proceeded better with more open dialogue and collaboration with the teams at the tournament, such as confirming that those rules still reflect what the attending players want. That conversation is challenging to have live, on-the-ground, and in a tournament setting, but not proactively engaging with the players led to even bigger challenges. At future fall events, participating teams should be confident there will be proactive transparency around identified exposure risks.”
USAU is convening a meeting this week with its medical working group to consider updates to the policies around positive COVID tests for players at events.
“The more we learn about Delta and the more we know about the ongoing risks, the more I say that we should err on the side of caution,” said Bill Rodriguez, an infectious disease specialist and ultimate hall of famer who sits on the USAU medical working group. “So my suggestion is that any player exposed to COVID — unvaccinated or vaccinated — should be pulled from competition. And I’ll say that on the call with the medical advisory group this week.” He said that USAU followed all the protocols in place during SFI and that this change would be going further than the CDC’s current recommendations, but that incoming data about the Delta variant does suggest that breakthrough infections, though still rare, have happened more often. Research shows that vaccinated people remain well protected from COVID-19 infection, including from the Delta variant, and virtually certain to avoid severe symptoms if infected.
Rodriguez added that he understood teams’ trepidation about playing against a team that has participants known to have had close contact with a COVID-positive person. “The decision to not want to play against Public Enemy is perfectly rational,” he said. “So to threaten teams with sanctions for forfeiting feels unfair.”
Deaver said that it was unlikely that any team that had forfeited games this weekend would face further sanctions but that a final decision had not yet been made. He also acknowledged that the organization’s communication around positive COVID incidents may need refining.
“I think [the communication strategy], that’s one that I think that we’re going to spend some more time thinking about,” said Deaver. “Because I think there is a line somewhere. And the question is, where to draw it about how much information you provide to who. At the time, we were erring on the side of privacy for the individuals and for the team. So I think in hindsight, that left a bit of a void. And I think that we weren’t entirely sure. From where I was not on site, how much of that information was going to just sort of find its way out there on its own? And clearly it did. And we tried to answer questions as they came up, but in hindsight, probably, it would have been helpful to have something broader. And maybe that’s something that we’ll do in the future.”
Deaver said that USAU believes the rules of the competition were made clear to teams in advance of the tournament.
“If we’re going to let a team continue, then it’s with some level of confidence that it’s safe for them to continue,” he said. “And again, that’s not my judgment — that’s the CDC saying it’s okay for individual X, Y, or Z to be out doing activities. So that’s the health and safety part of it. I think from a competition and logistical standpoint, I don’t think we want to get into a situation where teams are picking and choosing their schedule and how the event plays out, and what the experience for everyone is, getting that uncertainty thrown into it from round to round. I don’t think we want to have a situation where teams vote teams out of a tournament, we don’t want to have a situation where teams blackball teams out of a tournament.”
Both Rodriguez and Deaver noted that many elements of the COVID policies worked well this weekend. It was the first known positive case during a USAU event, and Public Enemy immediately reported it, isolated the players known to have close contacts with the person who contracted the virus, and awaited a formal decision from USAU about who could and could not play. USAU followed its policies in place and confirmed with the medical advisory group that they were taking the right steps.
“I think that this saga — itself, in isolation — I think helps us, because we can be clear, having now gone through it for the first time as a community as a USA Ultimate sanctioned event community,” said Deaver. “A positive test at an event, something that millions of people, hundreds of thousands of businesses have gone through for a year. So we got to kind of experience that directly, figure out how to respond in terms of communications, and hopefully move forward with events and people making their own personal decisions about whether to play or not, but be able to offer them in a safe manner.”
Reporting for this story was contributed by Steve Sullivan, who also sits on the USAU Board of Directors.
The Club Guidelines note that forfeited games can lead to sanctions, which “may include, but are not limited to, disqualification from the regular season and/or series, rankings and/or bid allocation penalties, team and/or player/coach suspensions, financial penalties and team and/or member conduct hearings. Game forfeits will be dealt with on a case by case basis, taking into account all pertinent facts and perspectives.” ↩
either in a semifinal or in 5th place consolation ↩
Goff is also the Men’s Club National Director, a volunteer position with USAU, but in this instance was speaking in his capacity as Public Enemy coach, not as a USAU representative. ↩
The Event Guide does also clearly state that teams must play all scheduled games and that forfeits may incur sanctions from USAU both later in the event and in future events. ↩