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TODD AARON GOLDEN: To vax or not? It's a question that will test team unity at ISU and everywhere else

To vax or not? It's a question that will test team unity at ISU and everywhere else

Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza

Coach cares: Indiana State football coach Curt Mallory talks to his team after the Sycamores' practice Friday at Memorial Stadium.

One of the elementary requirements coaches in any sport have is to establish a culture of winning.

There are many methods to do so, but one thing that all of the methods share in common is the goal of getting all of the athletes moving in the same direction — fully-bought into the mission of the team.

Coaches spend as much time on building and maintaining culture as they do on X's and O's. It's vitally important and they attempt to parry any deviations from team unity with understandable zeal.

Until recently, the kinds of distractions coaches dealt with were comparatively simple person-to-person matters or cliques within teams, but as it has with so many things, COVID-19 has completely changed the dynamic of team sports. Coaches used to try to enforce culture by sheer will of their personality and their power, but COVID-19 is beyond even their ability to bend players to their wills.

COVID-19 has changed everything, including the potential of ripping at the fiber of team unity by the choices of the individual members of the team. Never is that so evident as it is with the prickly topic of COVID-19 vaccinations. 

Teams cannot make any players get a COVID-19 vaccination, that would have be a decision made at the institutional level, as it has been at Indiana University for all students.

Teams and coaches are at the mercy of the athletes to make their own decision as to whether to get vaccinated. They can, and do, encourage them to get the jab, but they can't make them get vaccinated.

So right away, there's a potential divide in the locker room that is beyond the reach of the coaching staff.

"I told the staff and the team that this will be the biggest challenge of our whole careers and how we handle it. Are we going to stay together? Or are we going to divide?" ISU football coach Curt Mallory said.

Before one thinks about the team unity aspect of vaccination, there are competitive considerations that play into that unity. 

During the 2020-21 season, before vaccinations were readily available for college-aged athletes, conferences and the governing bodies were flexible, within reason, in terms of accommodating teams that got hit by a COVID-19 bug. Games were rescheduled and gaps were even built into the schedules to provide for any delays.

With vaccines now available for college-aged athletes, that kind of flexibility will not be the modus operandi going forward, particularly as far as the Missouri Valley Football Conference is concerned.

MVFC commissioner Patty Viverito said during the MVFC media day last week that teams that have a spate of COVID-19 cases will not be able to reschedule games. Those games will instead be forfeited. The NFL has indicated a similar policy. With a full schedule planned? There's no practical way to reschedule games anyway.

The goal, as it is with other sporting bodies like the NFL, is to get teams to an 85% vaccination rate. That would mean a much lower level of contact tracing and testing for the teams in the MVFC. 

Unfortunately, no MVFC team had reached that level of vaccination as of last week. Mallory said Friday that the Sycamores were floating around 70%.

The competitive issues are obvious. Mallory told ISU's media on Saturday that he's preparing for contingencies in case there are positive cases among the Sycamores to avoid forfeiture even if ISU does have cases.

He mentioned several players that might have to switch sides and play defense when they usually play offense and vice versa. This would be a last resort measure and one that wouldn't be conducive to quality of play in the league if other teams did the same.

Those competitive concerns feed into how the locker room handles the consequences of vaccinations, or lack thereof, and it comes back to that vaunted "culture"? What happens when you have a locker room in which seven out of 10 players feel they're doing what's right for themselves and for the team? Or, put another way, a locker room that has three out of 10 players feeling they're doing what's right for themselves? 

We know that the delta variant of COVID-19 is far, far easier for unvaccinated people to catch. What if ISU has a spate of cases? What happens if an unvaccinated player or players is the cause for the season to go in a negative direction?

It's a potential rift the coaches — who themselves might not all be vaccinated  — have to contend with head-on. 

"We have to stay together and everyone has to respect everyone's decision, but with that, we have to adjust as we go through the season. We can't have a division of players. We can't have a division of coaches and players. We have to stay together and stay united. It's going to be a challenge. It's going to be a challenge everywhere in the country," Mallory noted.

The vaccinated and unvaccinated players have different protocols. Unvaccinated players are tested twice a week, must wear a mask during all team activities, and are encouraged to keep their social interactions limited as it was for student-athletes during the 2020-21 seasons.

"We hold each other accountable and do our best to police each other to make sure you're doing the right thing. If you're not vaccinated, you can't go out in the public, you always have to keep your mask around. The majority of us have been vaccinated, but those who haven't been, they have to follow those protocols and we're going to hold them to that," said ISU defensive end Inoke Moala, who noted that vaccinated players have tried to encourage unvaccinated players to get the jab.

Mallory said that while there's no formal bubble players are encouraged to be cautious.

"We're trying to stay in our bubble. We're constantly on them about wearing masks and they've done an outstanding job of that. This isn't new to them. They've gotten into the habit of doing it," Mallory said.

Under Mallory, ISU has prided itself on its unified culture. But as Mallory said, the vaxed and un-vaxed on the roster will be a challenge unlike any other. For now, the Sycamores are confident they can handle it.

"If you do get vaccinated, good. If you don't? That's not going to break us apart. For us to reach our goal, we have to have everybody. We cannot let this divide us," ISU wide receiver Dante Hendrix said.

Time will tell whether ISU's team culture, or that of any other program, can withstand the external pressures placed upon it.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 231-4272 or Follow Golden on Twitter at @TribStarTodd.

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Todd Aaron Golden has been Sports Editor and Indiana State beat writer since September 2004. Born in Milwaukee but an Indiana resident most of his adult life, he previously worked in Jeffersonville, Columbus and Eau Claire, Wis.