‘Enjoying life to the fullest.’ Indiana cheerleader, Luke Recker’s ex-girlfriend deals with paralysis
She doesn’t remember the details of that day, the tiny details she wishes now that she could — of the final day of a life she would never live again. What she ate for breakfast. What clothes she wore. Walking out to the Ford Taurus, giggling with her tall, lanky, sweet Luke.
But, Kelly Craig said, she remembers one thing. She felt invincible.
Craig was 19, a soccer cheerleader at Indiana University and a Chi Omega sorority member. She was on vacation in Colorado with Luke Recker, her boyfriend of nearly three years, the 1997 IndyStar Mr. Basketball and IU player recruited by coach Bob Knight.
But this summer of 1999, this was a summer of new beginnings. The two had big plans for the fall — they were transferring to the University of Arizona, where Recker would play for Lute Olson.
First, though, there was a carnival. On that hot July night, Craig and Recker hopped into the Taurus with new friends they’d met at the Colorado Trails Ranch where they were staying with Craig’s family.
They headed to Durango for a night of elephant ears, cotton candy, Ferris wheels and face painting.
Craig felt so free that July night, she would later write in her book, “Fractured Not Broken.” Craig did not respond to IndyStar requests for comment for this story.
“Freer than a kite in the wind flying high in love and looking forward to a new life in Arizona,” she writes. “We were young lovers, college kids with the world at our fingertips.”
Moans on the highway
The impact was crushing. And deadly.
Recker was in the back seat of the Taurus behind the driver, John Hollberg, 23, of Georgia. Craig and her brother Jason Craig, 17, sat next to him. Two other passengers were in the Ford.
Another vehicle heading to the carnival with them, a pickup carrying 11 passengers, was in front of the Taurus. It was July 10, 1999.
Heading toward them at 70 mph, though no one knew it, was a GMC truck driven by Bob Hardwick, 21, who was drunk, according to police. He swerved into the eastbound lane, clipped the left rear of the pickup and then crashed into the Taurus, according to the Colorado State Patrol report from that night.
Craig writes in her book of the moans and groans from people scattered on the highway. Of Recker bleeding. People screaming.
Brenda Krempp, Craig’s mom, was back at the dude ranch playing cards with her husband, Craig’s stepdad, Andy. The director of the ranch came through the doors.
He was frantic, Craig writes in the book. “There’s been an accident involving a drunk driver and your kids were involved,” he told them. Brenda’s heart dropped.
At the hospital, doctors told Krempp that Jason Craig had suffered a severe head injury. Craig had sustained a spinal cord injury, a C4 fracture. They told Krempp her daughter was paralyzed from the neck down.
“Brenda’s knees buckled and she fell into a heap on the floor,” Craig writes in her memoir. “She envisioned Christopher Reeve, his motorized chair and his labored breathing through a ventilator.”
Craig woke up in the hospital hearing the words “paralyzed” and “quadriplegic.” She said she started to picture herself in a wheelchair, struggling to roll up a hill.
“It was like someone had draped a heavy blanket over me. For a long time after that day, I wished I’d died,” Craig writes. “How naive I was to believe I was untouchable. That my cake life would go on forever.”
But at least she had her Luke. At least for now.
A chance meeting
They met as teens on Michael Lewis’ back porch in Jasper, Indiana. Craig and Lewis went to the same high school and were good friends. Recker went to DeKalb and lived in Auburn. Lewis and Recker were headed to IU to play basketball.
That night on the porch, the summer before Recker’s senior year of high school, Craig and Recker couldn’t stop talking. They talked for hours. She was beautiful with her dark hair and brilliant smile, a track star. He was an elite athlete with a kind heart and boyish good looks.
Before the accident, Recker and Craig had made it through a long-distance relationship, living more than four hours apart. They would talk on the phone for hours. Recker would have Craig watch SportsCenter; he would watch it, too. Once together at IU, there was no more distance.
Recker told Craig of his lifelong dream to make it to the NBA. “I was his biggest cheerleader,” Craig says in her book.
Recker soon became hers.
The accident that July night took Hollberg’s life, the friend driving Recker and the Craigs. Recker had severe cuts to his head and almost lost his left ear.
When he was released from the hospital in Durango, days after the accident and after stitches and plastic surgery on his ear, Recker had one mission: Getting to San Juan Regional Medical Center in New Mexico to see Craig. Her brother Jason was also there with a severe head injury and in a coma.
“I’ll never forget the first time I saw her and her brother,” Recker told IndyStar at the time. “It was heartbreaking. It was the toughest thing I’ve ever seen. I did break down crying.”
In the hospital, Recker encouraged Craig to build strength and set goals.
One day they would look back on this and see how far they’d come, they told each other. They cried. He squeezed her hand and told her he didn’t want to leave her.
“I wanted him to lie beside me, to hold me, to tell me everything would be better soon,” Craig writes. “What a way to end the most wonderful vacation in my life.”
A love waning
On their 3-year anniversary just 17 days after the accident, Recker pulled out a ring, two hearts with a little baby diamond in the middle and slipped it on Craig’s finger as she lay in the hospital.
She so desperately wanted to hug him, she wrote in her book. “It wasn’t just a ring, it was a symbol of his love and commitment.”
Craig continued rehab with the hope she would someday walk again. She was transferred to Christ Hospital in Chicago. Recker went home to Auburn and visited when he could.
“People tell me I shouldn’t feel guilty. But it’s tough. Every time I see myself walking or doing any simple task, I know that Kelly and her brother would give anything to do that. It’s tough,” Recker told IndyStar in 1999. “Somebody could give me $5 million tomorrow, and I’d give it all back for the way things used to be.”
In September 1999, Craig was released from the rehab center to go home to Jasper. But first, she went to a charity golf outing in honor of her and Jason Craig at Plum Creek Golf Course in Carmel.
Recker drove her around in a golf cart, from hole to hole, all over the course, saying thank you to those who had come.
“I just have tons of gratitude,” Craig told IndyStar the day of the outing. “It’s phenomenal for me, and my brother, too. I’m amazed by how many people care, and show their support and love.”
Craig talked about her recovery that day, how it was progressing slowly. She could move her left arm and wiggle some fingers. She had some feeling in her legs.
“It’s a very slow process,” she said. “I don’t see the progress but others do. It’s just so slow.”
That day on the golf course, Recker told reporters of his admiration for Craig. “As tough as the situation is, she still has a smile on her face all the time. She’s the one who is always cheering me up. She’s incredible, she’s tough, and I’m just thankful to have her.”
In her book, Craig used the real names for everyone — except Recker. She calls him Eric. She writes about that golf outing that day, the smile on her face, how she didn’t really feel like smiling.
“Inside, my heart ached for Eric to smile at me the way he used to, to hold me with longing, to gaze into my eyes until my breath caught,” she writes. “But he didn’t. His eyes remained dim and his touch cool. He stayed by my side but the energy between us had thinned.”
Leaving Arizona for Iowa
Recker shook the college basketball world when in December 1999, he announced he would leave after one semester at Arizona and transfer to Iowa.
The move would give him three semesters of eligibility at Iowa beginning with the second semester of the 2000-2001 season.
Recker said the decision had very little to do with basketball and everything to do with being closer to Craig.
“If this accident had never happened, I would never have left Arizona,” Recker told IndyStar at the time. “Kelly and I were transferring there together and we were really excited about the prospects.”
On that same day, Recker told IndyStar he wanted to clear up recent media reports that he said were wrong, including some that said he and Craig were engaged.
But, he said, “we are very, very close and she is the primary reason I’m returning to the Midwest.”
At Iowa, coach Steve Alford helped a distraught Recker get back on his feet. “I care deeply for coach Alford,” Recker said. “He’s helped me mature as a player and as a person, and I attribute it all to him because he’s spent a lot of time with me both on and off the court, making sure I’d be ready to play this year. And I think I am ready.”
For a college kid to go through what Recker faced that summer of 1999 was tough, said Alford, now coach of Nevada.
“It was definitely something that rocked him,” said Alford. But the Iowa team, coaches and community took Recker in. Alford had known Recker long before he came to Iowa; Alford met him when he ran camps at DeKalb. He had watched Recker go from IU to Arizona and then watched as Recker faced tragedy.
“That accident really kind of changed the course of his life,” Alford said.
At Iowa, Recker began to heal spiritually and get back out socially. He started to smile. Eventually he and Craig broke up. Some people criticized Recker for not staying by her side.
After a 2001 game against Purdue at Mackey Arena, an IndyStar article about Recker said: “There are many in Indiana who hope Recker fails… who are critical of the relationship he has with former girlfriend Kelly Craig, who was paralyzed in that tragic accident caused by a drunken driver.”
Recker said after the breakup that he never foresaw what happened to him and Craig. “It was tough for a long time because we had a lot of issues going on,” he said. “It was a situation you’re never prepared for and sometimes you don’t handle things right.”
Alford said he always felt deeply for what Recker went through.
“He was very mature for a young man, but nobody wants to have to try to handle that,” Alford said. “When that’s what happens in life, you just do the best you can. I thought he did a really good job of trying to handle it the best he could.”
Perseverance and determination
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In 2009, she married Shawn Schaefer and now is Kelly Craig Schaefer, the mother of two children. She finished college and became a teacher. She is a public speaker and advocate for victims of drunk drivers. She speaks at schools about the tragic effects of driving drunk.
And she is author of her memoir, which she wrote with her aunt, M. Weidenbenner. It is a testament to her strength.
“I’m not surprised to see Kelly doing great things,” Recker told IndyStar in a written message. “She is a terrific person and cares deeply about helping others. Her perseverance and determination are impressive.”
Recker declined to elaborate further on the July 1999 accident or his relationship with Schaefer, but said he was glad to see her success.
“She has never complained and maintained a positive outlook, regardless of the circumstances,” he said. “I’m happy that she is enjoying life to the fullest.”
Recker is also married and is a father. He met his wife, Megan, at Iowa. He never made an NBA roster; he fractured his kneecap at Iowa. But, he played professionally overseas.
Jason Craig, who spent months in a coma, awoke with traumatic brain injury. He uses a walker and is more childlike than the nearly 40-year-old man that he is.
The drunk driver in the accident, Hardwick, was charged with 19 criminal counts, including vehicular homicide, vehicular assault and driving while intoxicated. Hardwick received nine years in prison. He has been released.
“I got what I deserve,” Hardwick told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 2002. “I took a person’s life. I got less than what I deserved.”
One person died, but many others lost the lives they had before that night, Schaefer writes in her book. But she doesn’t dwell on that.
“Stop waiting for Friday, for summer, for someone to find love with you, for life,” she writes. “Happiness is achieved when you stop waiting for it and make the most of the moment you are in now.”
In their quest to return to play amid a global pandemic, professional sports leagues have built their safety protocols upon a common foundation: Testing.
Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer are testing all of their players and key staff members for COVID-19 multiple times per week. The NBA’s bubble near Orlando, Florida features daily tests. The NFL has yet to finalize its protocol for the fall — but if it goes ahead with the 2020 season, frequent testing will surely be a priority.
One month ago, sports’ use of those COVID-19 tests — and the lab capacity needed to process them — was thought to be incidental. But now, the United States is seeing more than 50,000 new cases of COVID-19 a day. Major commercial labs are struggling to keep up with the high demand, causing delays in turnaround times. And experts wonder if the return of sports could burden an increasingly-fragile testing infrastructure.
“That’s been a big concern for me, as I’ve been seeing different leagues and their plans for reopening,” said Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at New York University and Bellevue Hospital.
“We’re testing a lot (in New York), but other parts of the country don’t have that same capacity. And if you have every single player on a team wanting to be tested — even if it’s once a week or twice a week — that’s just a huge strain on the system.”
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In addition to tens of thousands of tests per week that will likely be needed for the safe return of sports, there’s the lab capacity needed to process them.
As large commercial labs deal with slowdowns, leagues could be forced to either wait several days for test results like members of the public — rendering the results essentially useless as athletes continue to compete — or get results back earlier, with a perception that they are cutting in line.
Leagues say they have taken steps to ensure their operations don’t impact testing and lab infrastructure, both regionally and nationwide. And some experts said they believe the tests being used by the NBA, MLB and MLS — which USA TODAY Sports estimated at 19,000 per week — amount to little more than a drop in the metaphorical bucket for a nation that has most recently been processing nearly 640,000 tests per day.
Others said it’s hard to know exactly what kind of burden sports might have on the testing infrastructure, a complicated web of public and private labs and supply chains that often overlap. They argue that even a slight strain on the system could prove consequential, and that the notion of sports leagues using up scarce resources veers into matters of ethics — and optics.
“You don’t want to be in the mansion on the hill, while all the peasants down there are starving,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist and incoming professor at Oxford College of Emory University. “The peasants’ situation isn’t your fault, (but) you still don’t want to be sitting in that house on that hill when you could help.”
‘Not one versus the other’
Several professional sports leagues have already returned to play or are scheduled to return this month, including MLB, MLS, NASCAR, the WNBA, the PGA Tour and the National Women’s Soccer League.
But perhaps no league has found itself at the center of the country’s COVID-19 response like the NBA.
It was the first pro league to suspend play, halting a game on March 11 when Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. Then, it faced brief backlash because its teams had access to testing while some in the general population struggled to get tested.
Two months later, the pandemic had not completely subsided but there were promising signs. Cases, hospitalizations and deaths related to COVID-19 had plateaued or trended downward. Once-scarce tests had become plentiful. Hot spots such as New York City were largely under control. So the NBA began developing a plan to resume play at the Disney sports complex in Florida.
But as states began relaxing stay-at-home orders, those promising trends flipped.
Now, with games scheduled to begin July 30, the timing and location couldn’t be much worse: Nearly half of Florida’s intensive-care units are at least 90% full and the state reported 215 COVID-19 related deaths on Thursday and Friday, the highest two-day total since the pandemic began.
“It only took us two or three weeks to get back into this bad situation,” said Jill Roberts, an infectious disease expert and associate professor at the University of South Florida.
The spike in cases — first in a handful of Southern states, and now across much of the U.S. — has led to a sharp increase in the demand for testing. And several of the nation’s large commercial labs are now facing backlogs.
Quest Diagnostics, which has facilitated some of the NBA’s testing, said this week that everyone outside of its high-priority group — namely hospital patients and symptomatic health care workers — would now have to wait 4 to 6 days for their results. LabCorp, another major commercial lab, said Wednesday that it is experiencing similar issues.
BioReference Laboratories, which has partnered with MLS and NBA to process tests for their bubble sites in Florida, said in a statement Friday that it is processing tests within 72 hours with an estimated capacity of 70,000 tests per day.
“We have enough capacity right now to test the people we’ve made our commitments to,” Jon Cohen, the company’s executive chairman, told USA TODAY Sports on Friday. “If you have a relationship with BioReference, and we have made a commitment to you, we’re going to deliver on that commitment.”
Cohen said this commitment extends to turnaround times. However, he also acknowledged that there have been days in which his labs have not been able to process all the tests they received due to myriad factors, including excessive demand, supply-chain issues and equipment malfunctions. And that leads to a situation in which some batches of tests are processed more quickly than others.
“I have hospitals that need a certain turnaround time because they want to do some elective procedures,” he explained. “I know we have urgent cares where people are suffering, that need certain turnaround times. I have sports franchises that need certain things to be able to function in their leagues. … It’s not one versus the other. It’s not like you need to do these before those, and everything else. We make the commitment, and then honor our commitments.”
Cohen said tests from the NBA and MLS will be processed locally in Florida. When asked in an email to clarify whether those athletes would receive their test results more rapidly than members of other groups, BioReference spokesperson Hillary Titus pointed to the company’s efforts to increase its testing capacity in Florida but did not directly answer the question.
The NBA has indicated in its health and safety protocols that it will seek to collect testing samples each evening, with the goal of retrieving the results by the following morning. That turnaround time would be faster than what is currently available to the public at major commercial labs.
The league said it has required its lab partners — including BioReference — to certify that its testing efforts will not impact the availability of tests for health care workers and other high-priority groups in each team’s community. It said it has also taken steps to preserve resources in the Orlando area, including lab capacity.
“BioReference has brought new testing capacity to its laboratory in Central Florida in order to manage NBA and local testing needs simultaneously, and ensure that tests in Florida supporting hospitals and patients are not diverted from the community,” NBA spokesperson Mike Bass said in a statement.
MLS, which is also operating out of a so-called bubble site near Orlando, did not respond to a series of questions from USA TODAY Sports about what steps, if any, it has taken to preserve or expand testing resources for the public.
No certainty of not being a burden
Unlike the NBA and MLS, MLB plans to play its 60-game shortened season in its teams’ home stadiums, scattered across 28 cities.
The league said it is relying on saliva-based testing for asymptomatic players, in an effort to preserve materials such as nasal swabs for “essential testing.” It is also processing the vast majority of its COVID-19 tests at a Utah lab that usually handles drug tests.
“By taking this step, the program will be additive to public testing,” MLB said in response to a series of questions from USA TODAY Sports.
The league also said its Utah lab is subcontracting with a second unspecified lab “to ensure continuity of results reporting.” Several MLB teams had to pause their workouts this month due to delays in test results.
Roberts, the South Florida infectious disease expert, said MLB’s primary use of a private lab that won’t delay processing of public tests is a significant gesture, but it’s nearly impossible to entirely mitigate the impact of the league’s mass testing.
“They’re not taking (significant) lab personnel out of the public bucket,” she said. “The problem is, they’re taking supplies, and that’s how we ran into our (testing) problems in March.”
The availability of testing supplies has improved relative to the early stages of the pandemic, according to Eric Blank, chief program officer at the Association of Public Health Laboratories. But more people are seeking tests now, too.
While manufacturers have ramped up production of materials such as swabs, reagents and pipettes, “they’re still not able to keep up” with demand, Blank said — and that appears unlikely to change anytime soon.
“I think we’re going to be dealing with these supply-chain issues as long as this response is going,” he said. “Because it’s so large. I think it goes beyond what anybody imagined.”
Blank said he doesn’t think the tests that are being used by sports leagues will impact his member laboratories. Even with frequent testing, he said, the leagues are using fewer tests than small cities.
Other experts are less certain, citing the ever-changing nature of the virus and lack of a centralized testing authority, which could monitor test usage and distribute materials where they are most needed. They say there’s simply no way to know what impact the return of sports could have on the broader testing infrastructure — particularly when you factor in the tests being used by college sports, and potentially the NFL this fall.
“Bigger picture, it’s hard to imagine that you’d have a really large organization that plans to do massive testing — multiple times per week — and be certain that it won’t somehow put a burden on the system,” said Ryan Demmer, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health.
Sports doing more harm than good?
To counteract their potential burdens, the NBA, MLB and MLS have pledged to help provide COVID-19 tests or antibody tests for the public.
The NBA has outlined multiple initiatives that will expand testing options in Central Florida providing “a mobile testing site and a drive-through testing event, which will be open to the public and will together provide thousands of tests to the community,” Bass said.
The NBA is also supporting testing research through partnerships with the Yale School of Public Health and the Mayo Clinic, among others. MLB said it is offering free COVID-19 tests and antibody tests to health care workers and first responders in its home cities. And BioReference said in a news release it is working with MLS to provide antibody tests for the public in Orlando.
Despite those good-faith efforts, sports risk losing the battle of perception as long as athletes are receiving multiple tests in a virtual bubble, while citizens in hard-hit areas wait in their cars or long lines for hours, often in vain, for the same test.
“I think sports in general will be an easy target to say, why are we doing this?” said Roberts. “But you could say that about a hundred things. You don’t need your nails done. You don’t need your tacos. But those are obviously part of the economy.”
The stakes for sports could intensify in the fall, however, if the NFL and college football go ahead as planned.
There are more teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (130) than the NBA, NWSL, MLB, MLS and WNBA combined. And while active rosters in those other sports range from 12 players to 30, football rosters are usually two or three times as large. With daily testing and 70-man rosters, for example, the NFL would use and process more than 15,000 tests per week for its players alone.
Binney, the incoming professor at Emory, said leagues must ultimately ask themselves a simple question: Are they doing more harm or good by returning?
The answer, of course, is complicated. And changing all the time.
“I think that pro sports, with the right setup and the right logistics, can come back still without having a negative effect on the community around them,” Binney said. “But it’s getting harder.”
Follow the reporters on Twitter @GabeLacques, @Tom_Schad and @JeffZillgitt.
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Two former N.F.L. players have sued the league, the players’ union and the medical board those institutions jointly control for agreeing to reduce the disability payments they received for life by tens of thousands of dollars a year.
The complaint, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., on Friday, stems from a provision in the 10-year collective bargaining agreement that the league and union ratified in March. In the deal, both sides agreed to cut disability payments to 400 or so former players whose doctors have determined they are unable to work.
The players now receive up to $138,000 a year. That amount will be reduced by the value of their Social Security disability benefits, which amounts to $2,000 or more per month, starting in January.
The decision to cut payments to some of the league’s most vulnerable former players has elicited outrage. Wives caring for former players on disability have criticized the N.F.L. on social media. Some members of the union’s executive committee said they did not fully recognize the implications of what they agreed to in the new labor deal. Active players have spoken up, too, most notably Eric Reid, a free-agent safety who said the union turned its back on the former players, a decision he called “disgraceful.”
In May, the N.F.L. Players Association said it planned to review the provisions in the new collective bargaining agreement that pertain to the reduction in benefits to permanently disabled former players.
Cleveland Browns center J.C. Tretter, the N.F.L.P.A. president, who was elected in March, said in his monthly newsletter that the union’s 11-member executive committee and leaders from among retired players would re-examine changes to the Total and Permanent Disability benefit “to fulfill our obligation to all of our members.” He also said the group had “a responsibility to review issues where we have fallen short.”
Two months later, the union has not announced any results from that review.
Tretter and other members of the executive committee will also reconsider a provision of the new labor agreement that allows only N.F.L. disability plan doctors to determine if a former player qualifies for benefits. For now, if a player is approved to receive Social Security disability benefits by an outside doctor, N.F.L. plan administrators will accept that diagnosis and release monthly benefits. This provision, which will be phased out under the agreement, could affect hundreds of additional players in the future.
The union, the league and their disability review board will now have to consider the federal lawsuit brought by Aveion Cason, a running back who played for eight seasons, mostly in Detroit and St. Louis, and Donald Vincent Majkowski, a quarterback who spent 10 years with the Packers, Colts and Lions.
In their suit, they note that Commissioner Roger Goodell told Congress in 2007 that if a player was approved for Social Security disability payments, then the N.F.L. would honor that diagnosis. The new labor deal reverses that promise.
Cason and Majkowski also contend that language in the labor agreement was altered after it was signed, to the detriment of the former players who rely on disability payments. They say that the disability benefits that retired players receive were “for life.”
“It is elemental in sports that you do not change the rules of the game in the middle of the game,” Paul Secunda, a lawyer for the players, said in a statement. “Yet that is exactly what the N.F.L. and N.F.L.P.A. did to its most vulnerable members.”
The league did not respond to requests for comment, and the union said it would not comment at the moment.
ESPN has suspended popular NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski without pay for a profane email he sent to Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand reports.
Hawley wrote an open letter to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on Friday criticizing the league’s relationship with China and calling on the league to allow messages in support of police, the military and Hong Kong protesters on player jerseys. The NBA is allowing players taking part in the season’s restart to wear pre-approved messages in support of social justice on their nameplates in place of their last names.
Responding to a press release emailed to him from Hawley’s office regarding the letter, Wojnarowski, ESPN’s chief NBA news-breaker, responded: “(Expletive) you.”
Hawley took the response by “Woj” public, prompting an apology from Wojnarowski.
“I was disrespectful and I made a regrettable mistake,” Wojnarowski said in a statement Friday. “I’m sorry for the way I handled myself and I am reaching out immediately to Senator Hawley to apologize directly. I also need to apologize to my ESPN colleagues because I know my actions were unacceptable and should not reflect on any of them.”
ESPN called Wojnarowski’s comments “completely unacceptable behavior,” in a statement of its own, with the “Worldwide Leader” saying it would address the matter internally.
The length of Wojnarowski’s suspension is unknown but the NBA insider will not be reporting from the NBA bubble this week in Orlando as planned, Marchand reports.
ESPN declined comment Sunday morning.
Contributing: Chris Bumbaca, Scott Gleeson
D.C. United was slated to take on Toronto FC on Sunday morning in the MLS is Back Tournament, but the game was postponed just minutes before the scheduled 9 a.m. kickoff.
The cause for the postponement were COVID-19 tests from both teams, according to MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott, who spoke publicly on Sunday morning. One player on D.C. United tested positively, Abbott said, but not a “final positive,” suggesting the results haven’t been confirmed.
A Toronto player had an inconclusive test, according to Abbott.
In a phone call with FTW, Abbott said the game’s postponement was “an example of us using our protocols to make the right decision.”
When asked if this match, yet another postponement in the MLS is Back Tournament, was spurring any larger discussions about calling the tournament off completely, Abbott said:
“We are not having a conversation about postponing or canceling the tournament.”
When asked about reports that DC United had shown up at the stadium and Toronto FC had not, Abbott said it was simply a matter of the league informing Toronto about the postponement before they had departed for the stadium.
As to the reason the decision came to postpone the match on Sunday morning — as opposed to when the positive test came back Saturday night — Abbott says this was due to waiting on results of a “confirmatory retest.” As Toronto had been in Florida for fewer than six days, MLS safety protocols called for the team to get a second, confirmatory retest, according to Abbott. When those results did not get back on time on Sunday morning, they made the decision to postpone the match.
MLS issued a statement as well, clarifying that they will wait for results of re-tests prior to playing the match.
Half an hour before kickoff, TSN’s Kristian Jack, The Athletic’s Matt Pyzdrowski and ESPN’s Stefano Fusaro independently reported that the game was being postponed.
The NHL playoffs are always unpredictable, and now a variable is being tossed in — a global pandemic.
The league, which went on hiatus on March 12 because of the coronavirus, is ready to move to Phase 3 of its return when training camps open on Monday.
If all goes well, 24 teams will report to hub cities in Toronto and Edmonton, Canada, on July 26, the playoff qualifying round will start on Aug. 1 with five games, and the Stanley Cup will be awarded as late as October.
And testing, social distancing and hygiene will be the most important defensive systems to make sure it’s carried off.
“We’re all living day-to-day here, and we’ll see what happens,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said Saturday during a Zoom call.
How the tournament will work:
In training camps, teams will be limited to 30 skaters, plus an unlimited number of goalies. Players and other club and facility personnel were to be tested 48 hours before they arrived and then will be tested every other day. Temperature checks will be done before anyone can enter a facility.
If players show COVID-19 symptoms, they will self-isolate and be tested. Asymptomatic players will also self-isolate if they test positive and must have two negative tests 24 hours apart before returning.
Players also are being asked to limit their public access off-ice before heading to the hub cities to avoid the chance of exposure. The NHL last week said that 23 of 296 players tested during voluntary workouts were positive, a 5% rate. Another 12 had tested positive since March.
“You need to make your inner circle pretty darn small because what you do affects everybody else,” Carolina Hurricanes forward Justin Williams said in a recent Zoom call. “That’s pretty much the basis of what a team is anyway; you’re only as strong as your weakest link. But at this point, your weakest link can take down your whole team.”
Players have until Monday to opt out. Calgary Flames defenseman Travis Hamonic already has done so, as have the Dallas Stars’ Roman Polak and Vancouver Canucks’ Sven Baertschi and the Edmonton Oilers’ Mike Green.
Once in the hub cities, rosters will be 31 players and teams can bring a total of 52 people. Players will get a floor of a hotel. No one can leave the hub except for a medical appointment or a family emergency. Quarantine will be required when returning.
No fans are allowed. No family can show up until the conference finals, which will be held in Edmonton. Media interaction with players and coaches will be by Zoom. There will be daily testing for players.
“One positive test shouldn’t shut down the tournament, but obviously we have to be very cognizant of player heath and safety and if we have an outbreak situation, that turns into a different judgment,” Daly said. “But there’s no hard and fast numbers on that. That’s more of a sense of the medical professionals, and we’ll take our lead from them.”
On the ice, four bye teams will play a round robin to determine seeding at the top of each conference, while the remaining eight teams per conference will play a best-of-five series.
EASTERN CONFERENCE (Toronto)
Bye teams: Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, Tampa Bay Lightning
New York Rangers vs. Carolina Hurricanes
Florida Panthers vs. New York Islanders
Montreal Canadiens vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Toronto Maple Leafs
WESTERN CONFERENCE (Edmonton)
Bye teams: St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Dallas Stars, Vegas Golden Knights
Minnesota Wild vs. Vancouver Canucks
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
Winnipeg Jets vs. Calgary Flames
Chicago Blackhawks vs. Edmonton Oilers
SCHEDULE:Dates for the qualifying round, round-robin play
Teams will be reseeded after the qualifying round, and the first round will begin Aug. 11. The second round tentatively will start Aug. 25, the conference finals Sept. 8 and the Stanley Cup Final on Sept. 22.
NHL Players’ Association executive director Donald Fehr says he believes players will adjust to the unusual situation because they’re professionals.
“They adapt to whatever the world throws at them: a new coach, an injury … a new opportunity, an illness, whatever it is,” he said on the joint call with the NHL. “So will it be a challenge? Sure. Will it be different? Of course. Will the players in the long run have any difficulty handling it? No?”
The draft will then be held Oct. 9-10, around the time the next season usually starts. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman says he still plans to have a full 2020-21 season, even if it has to run later than usual.
Video of the day
The NHL is taking precautions in a bid to keep alive the tradition of awarding the Stanley Cup. It only hasn’t been done in 1919 (during a pandemic) and 2005, when the season was canceled because of a lockout.
So here’s a video from last year’s presentation to the Blues.
On Friday, New Mexico State — which heavily relies on revenue from football guarantee games — learned that one of its big-money matchups, a game vs. UCLA, had been called off because of the Pac-12 Conference’s decision to only play conference games. Now the fate of another lucrative game for the Aggies, against Florida, is uncertain.
When the Big Ten and Pac-12 moved to a conference-only schedule this week, more than $45 million in guarantee money appeared to be gone. If the other Power Five conferences, the SEC, Big 12 and ACC, follow suit, it could deal smaller programs a crushing blow.
“We get money directly from the state, we get money from the school, from student fees, from our multimedia rights holders, from our ticket sales, and we have budgeted for reductions in all of those areas,” New Mexico State athletic director Mario Moccia told USA TODAY Sports on Friday night, hours after the Pac-12 announced its decision. “This is one area where there are no cuts that we can make to make up for losing one or both guarantee games.”
USA TODAY Sports has obtained contracts for 139 non-conference football games involving Power Five teams. The payouts for these games had been set to total nearly $122 million, including amounts due to be paid by organizers of neutral-site games such as Alabama’s now-canceled matchup with Southern California in Arlington, Texas.
For 227 games involving FBS teams, the combined guarantee total was supposed to be nearly $138 million. Though the figures do not include every game contract, a USA TODAY Sports analysis of recent years’ guarantee-game deals estimates that the total value of all non-conference games is well over $160 million.
NEXT UP? SEC athletics directors will meet Monday to discuss football season
MEDICAL EXPERTS:Plan for conference-only football has merit, is step in right direction
The Big Ten’s and Pac-12’s moves don’t necessarily mean that none of that money will change hands this season. Depending on the language of the contracts, schools may still have to pay their guarantees or negotiate settlements. Contract language covering what happens if a game is canceled for reasons beyond the parties’ control can vary greatly, with some clauses more airtight than others.
For example, Florida’s contract with New Mexico State stipulates that if the game is called off under the prohibitory authority of the SEC, “both parties shall be relieved of any and all obligations of this agreement.”
But for contracts that don’t have that type of clause, the payment could come down to a settlement — or a legal challenge.
“Down the road what does that mean from a contractual litigation standpoint?” Moccia said. “We’ll cross those bridges when we get to them.”
USA TODAY Sports has identified at least 45 games this season that had a guarantee of $1 million or more to one or both schools. For games against Kentucky, Alabama and Penn State, Kent State was set to receive a combined total $5 million. According to Kent State’s most recently available annual financial report to the NCAA, its total operating revenue for the 2019 fiscal year was about $29.5 million.
Group of Five and FCS teams would especially be affected if the SEC were to void non-conference games. For 32 SEC home games against non-Power Five teams for which USA TODAY Sports has obtained contracts, the average guarantee is scheduled to be $987,500. The highest of those guarantees is the $1.9 million for a game between Auburn and Massachusetts.
New Mexico State’s games against Florida and UCLA alone were set to pay more than $2.7 million. Moccia said he believes the Aggies’ only option if they lose their guarantees may be to take out a loan and then play more guarantee games in future years in hopes of paying it back.
“There are no more sports to discontinue. We’re down to 16 (the minimum for FBS schools),” Moccia said. “So, we’re going to have to wait and see what happens in the next few days with other leagues — if they’re going to do the same thing, if they’re going to be looking for replacement opponents, maybe we could slide in. … If ($2.7 million) comes off the board and there are no sports to discontinue, you could, in theory lay off the entire athletic department and it wouldn’t equal ($2.7 million).”
Independents such as New Mexico State, UMass and Connecticut could be forced to only play each other this season if every conference goes to a conference-only schedule. But current games with other independents provide just $400,000 of UMass’ $3.3 million in guarantees, and $600,000 of UConn’s $2.3 million.
FCS leagues are also feeling the impact. Many FCS teams get much of their revenue from playing FBS teams. For 61 FBS-FCS matchups for which USA TODAY Sports has obtained contracts, the total payout was nearly $26 million.
“Out here in the Big Sky, we play a lot of games against the Pac-12 and the Mountain West Conference and we have a lot of discussions with those commissioners, and our ADs are talking to their ADs and we are hopeful that we can find a way to make those work,” Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill said Thursday, after the Big Ten announced its decision. “Because it’s a significant portion of the revenue for every one of our schools.”
In early March, as the coronavirus was spreading across the United States and testing capacity was already a problem, Bill Phillips had an idea.
Phillips is the chief operating officer of a medical device company, Spectrum Solutions, that provides saliva test kits for companies like Ancestry.com. He wondered if Spectrum’s kits — which require customers to spit in a tube and ship their samples through the mail — could work with detecting this new virus.
“I just threw it out there: Why don’t we test our device to see if we can use it as a transport medium to get it to the lab?” Phillips recalled in a recent telephone interview.
Spectrum, based outside Salt Lake City, teamed up with a laboratory at Rutgers University, made a few tweaks and found that the effectiveness of their saliva test kit was comparable to the nasopharyngeal test, or the long swab, that was already in widespread use.
By mid-April, the Food and Drug Administration granted the Rutgers lab an emergency-use authorization. A month later, it received approval for the test kit to be used at home.
That saliva kit is now a key part of Major League Baseball’s plan to return to play, and has also been used by other revived sports leagues, including the PGA Tour and Major League Soccer.
With sports leagues desperate to salvage their seasons and profits, testing was always crucial — even more so now as the number of cases rises nationwide. But there was no blueprint, so a patchwork of businesses and labs, all with entirely different missions before the pandemic, converged to meet the need.
A version of Spectrum’s spit test, once used to help figure out family trees, is now spotting infections. Vault Health, a telehealth company that was focused on sexual health and weight-loss therapies for men, is now using Spectrum’s saliva kit and the Rutgers lab to help leagues conduct wide-scale testing. And the Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory in Utah, which previously handled antidoping testing for M.L.B., is now processing coronavirus saliva tests for the league.
Dr. Daniel Eichner, the president and laboratory director of SMRTL, the shorthand name for the Utah lab doing M.L.B.’s coronavirus testing, acknowledged that there was “nothing good about this virus.” But, he said, he was proud of his team’s ability to pivot to this new challenge, like other companies.
“It’s a beautiful American story: When the chips are down, people jump in to contribute as best they can,” Dr. Eichner said.
Seeing an Opportunity
Navigating the rapidly evolving world of coronavirus testing has been far from a simple task for professional sports leagues. They have had to weigh the efficacy and speed of various tests and companies, all while trying to ensure they would not be taking away resources from those who needed them more.
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“It was incredibly complicated,” said Andy Levinson, the PGA Tour’s senior vice president of tournament administration.
When leagues began exploring their options — Levinson said the tour consulted laboratory directors and its own medical advisers — saliva-based tests emerged as a popular choice. They could be done almost anywhere, with minimal assistance from a medical professional and without much personal protective equipment, and some studies found saliva was a reliable alternative to the more-common nasopharyngeal swabs.
Another benefit: Spitting in a tube is much less painful than a swab shoved deep into the nasal cavity.
“We call it the brain tickler,” said Jason Feldman, the chief executive of Vault Health.
Feldman’s company is now a linchpin for several leagues’ coronavirus testing operations. Before the pandemic, it was part of a growing wave of telehealth companies, connecting patients with doctors via video calls and facilitating shipments of treatments through the mail.
When the pandemic hit the U.S., Feldman, like many business owners, feared the potential economic effects on his company. But then he realized he was sitting on a wealth of resources that would be useful amid the crisis: He had a relationship with both the Rutgers lab, known as RUCDR Infinite Biologics, and Spectrum Solutions for other products, and a virtual consultation platform that would provide a safe way to talk to patients.
Vault Health devised an at-home saliva testing package, which is supervised via a Zoom video call and mailed overnight to the Rutgers lab, that could produce a result within 48 to 72 hours. It costs $150 out of pocket.
“When sports leagues started calling us,” Feldman said, “they said almost universally, ‘We have athletes who want to come back to practice and we need a plan that could safely bring them back.’”
While Feldman said sports leagues make up a small percentage of his company’s testing clientele, he said Vault had supplied tests to the PGA, L.P.G.A., M.L.S., and N.H.L., as well as a small portion of the N.B.A.’s testing operation. A M.L.S. spokesman said Vault had provided testing for 13 teams during training, while BioReference Laboratories would do so at the league’s restricted-site tournament that recently began outside Orlando, Fla.
An N.H.L. spokesman said the league wasn’t prepared to disclose its testing company, and the N.B.A. did not respond to a request seeking comment.
ImageCredit…Tom Pennington/Getty ImagesImageCredit…Tom Pennington/Getty Images
The PGA Tour, which had restarted competition in mid-June in Texas, was the first professional sports organization to hire Vault, Feldman said. Levinson, the tour executive, said the saliva test was basically used to approve travel: Golfers and caddies take the test before heading to an event, and then once again on the Saturday of a tournament to determine if they can board the tour’s charter plane on Monday to the next event.
But the tour needed a speedier solution for on-site testing to monitor individuals’ health during the events without clogging up local labs. For that, Levinson said, they enlisted Sanford Health, a South Dakota organization that was already a title sponsor of a PGA Tour Champions event.
Sanford Health converted leftover medical trucks into three mobile laboratories, Levinson said, which can return results from the nasopharyngeal swab test in less than two hours.
A Sudden Demand
Phillips, the Spectrum Solutions executive, said that he had talked with nearly all of the professional sports leagues in the U.S., including the National Women’s Soccer League and U.F.C., because many compare notes.
“It was just a cascading effect,” he said. “One called me then another and another.” M.L.B., he said, came to him in April and was expecting to use 275,000 of his kits by the end of the year.
To meet the sudden demand, Phillips said recently that Spectrum Solutions’ factory was working around the clock to make 3.5 million saliva test kits this month. He hoped to double that number, and his staff, to about 500, by August.
Thanks to automation, Dr. Andy Brooks, the chief operating officer of RUCDR, said his lab in Piscataway, N.J., could handle 50,000 tests per day, with more room to grow. He said they had five $2 million modules — robots, essentially — each handling about 10,000 tests, and each requiring about 25 people to run.
ImageCredit…Bryan Anselm for The New York TimesImageCredit…Bryan Anselm for The New York Times
“We are the McDonald’s of molecular lab services,” he said. “We build a process and make it efficient.”
Throughout the pandemic, public health experts have questioned whether sports leagues were jumping to the front of the line for tests at the expense of the general population. Phillips said his company has donated kits to emergency medical workers in Utah and sold them to whoever wants them, trying to fill the void created by what he called the government’s uneven response to the pandemic.
“There’s a shortage of product, but there’s an even bigger shortage of approved labs,” he said, alluding to the F.D.A.’s backlog in emergency-use approvals for labs that could potentially handle such tests. “If we made 100 million, we can sell 100 million.”
‘We Didn’t Want to Sit Idle’
Unlike other leagues, M.L.B. opted to use SMRTL, the anti-doping lab in Utah, to conduct its testing. Dr. Eichner said SMRTL followed the Rutgers lab’s model for its saliva testing.
Why SMRTL, a nonprofit, morphed from an antidoping testing and research lab into one focusing mostly on coronavirus testing has to do with Dr. Eichner’s background: He has a P.h.D. in viral immunology from the Australian National University.
And as the coronavirus raged through the U.S. in March, he foresaw that the demand for antidoping testing would decrease as sports stopped, and the need for coronavirus testing would skyrocket.
“We had a lot of really good, smart scientists, a lot of good instruments and we didn’t want to sit idle,” he said, adding later, “I knew we could do this test.”
As Dr. Eichner explored ways to use SMRTL to add to the country’s testing capacity, M.L.B. was looking for return-to-play testing. The league paid to convert SMRTL into a coronavirus testing site, Commissioner Rob Manfred has said — and luckily for SMRTL, it had moved to a new facility in early March that is three times as large as its previous site.
To test the saliva coronavirus samples, the lab also needed to clear several federal hurdles. Dr. Eichner said SMRTL — used to dealing with anonymous athlete samples — boosted its secure network to meet federal medical privacy laws for handling patient information. While SMRTL is awaiting formal approval from the F.D.A. on its application for an emergency-use authorization, Dr. Eichner said they were allowed to operate in the meantime.
But M.L.B.’s testing got off to an uneven start as teams began formal training again this month. At least six M.L.B. teams, including last year’s World Series participants, the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros, canceled or postponed workouts during the first week because of delays in receiving test results. Test collectors also reportedly failed to show up in some instances.
M.L.B. said “unforeseen delays” in shipping over the July 4 holiday weekend had affected only a limited number of results and that it had since addressed the testing issues.
Before the delays became public last weekend, Dr. Eichner explained that SMRTL had promised M.L.B. a 24-hour turnaround on test results from the moment they receive the saliva shipments. “We’ve got no control on collection or shipping of the sample,” he said.
In the wake of those hiccups, an M.L.B. spokesman said in a statement on Friday that a portion of its nonplayer tests were expected to be handled by the Rutgers lab, and not solely SMRTL as originally planned. The spokesman said the decision had nothing to do with SMRTL’s capacity to handle the necessary testing.
With M.L.B. testing its players and key personnel at least twice a week, Dr. Eichner said SMRTL moved from working five days a week to every day, added at least five new people and can now process 2,000-2,500 samples a day. There are split shifts: an early morning and later start to get the results out by the evening.
“All that bureaucratic stuff was the hard stuff,” he said. “The actual science was really easy for us.”
It was the site of six championships between the Detroit Pistons and Shock, thousands of regular season basketball games, hundreds of playoff games and some of the greatest moments in Detroit sports history.
It hosted some of the most notable concerts in the state, with performances by Michael Jackson, Sting, Madonna, Prince and dozens of others.
And as of Saturday, it is no more.
The Palace of Auburn Hills was imploded Saturday morning, ending a years-long shuttering process that began when the Pistons moved to downtown Detroit to Little Caesars Arena in 2017.
Spectators gathered across the street to watch the implosion, which occurred at 8 a.m. Explosives brought down what was left of the 32-year-old arena, which consisted of tall columns and a roof following months of demolition that started in March, in a matter of seconds.
The barren arena collapsed in a cloud of dust and drew cheers and reactions of shock from onlookers.
A former coach for U.S.A. Gymnastics was arrested in Las Vegas on Friday and faces more than a dozen counts of lewdness with a minor, the authorities said.
The former coach, Terry Gray, 52, was a gymnastics coach in Las Vegas from 2009 to 2015 and was suspended last year from coaching by U.S.A. Gymnastics, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department said.
Mr. Gray “is not permitted any contact with any U.S.A. Gymnastics-sanctioned event, member club, professional member or athlete involved with U.S.A. Gymnastics member clubs or events,” according to an online record of suspended coaches maintained by U.S.A. Gymnastics.
ImageCredit…Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department
It was not immediately clear what led to the suspension, which lasts until October 2021. It was also not clear when he was a coach for U.S.A. Gymnastics.
Regarding his suspension, the organization cited sections of its rules that give U.S.A. Center for SafeSport jurisdiction over investigations of sexual misconduct within U.S.A. Gymnastics, and that prohibit members who are suspended from participating in any U.S.A. Gymnastics activities or competitions.
SafeSport, which was formed in 2017 by the United States Olympic Committee, investigates allegations of sexual misconduct for sports under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, including U.S.A. Gymnastics.
U.S.A. Gymnastics and SafeSport did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Saturday.
If convicted, Mr. Gray could face a maximum sentence of life in prison, Stephen B. Wolfson, the district attorney of Clark County in Nevada, said on Saturday. Mr. Wolfson could not elaborate on details about the charges, including when the episodes took place.
In Nevada, the lewdness charge involves a victim being touched “with the intent of arousing or appealing or gratifying the victim or the offender,” Mr. Wolfson said.
Mr. Gray, who was charged with 14 counts of lewdness with a minor under the age of 14, was being held in the Clark County Detention Center without bail and is scheduled to appear in court on Monday. It was not immediately clear on Saturday whether he had a lawyer.
Mr. Gray continued to work as a gymnastics coach at a club in Temecula, Calif., while the SafeSport investigation was proceeding, The Orange County Register reported in 2018.
John C. Manly, a lawyer who represents about 200 gymnasts who are suing U.S.A. Gymnastics, including one of Mr. Gray’s former athletes, said Mr. Gray had coached at gyms in California, Nevada and Ohio throughout his career.
“This isn’t just any gymnastics coach,” Mr. Manly said, “this is somebody who coached national team athletes, world champion athletes and Olympic athletes.”
His clients are among those who sued U.S.A. Gymnastics for failing to protect them from Lawrence G. Nassar, a former doctor for the U.S.A. Gymnastics national team. In 2018, Mr. Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for multiple sex crimes.
A documentary, “Athlete A,” released last month on Netflix, chronicles the abuses.
After the documentary was released, the chief executive of U.S.A. Gymnastics, Li Li Leung, said in a statement that “within U.S.A. Gymnastics, under an entirely new leadership team, we have implemented stronger policies and preventive measures, launched multiple educational efforts, and made sweeping organizational, leadership and personnel changes.”
“Most importantly, we have prioritized changing the subculture within our community that allowed this to happen,” the statement continued. “We owe these survivors an incredible debt of gratitude for igniting these changes across the sport.”