The University of Georgia Athletic Association has kept Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz, along with the rest of the Athens community, in the dark about the health status of Georgia football players who returned to campus for voluntary workouts on June 8. The Red & Black's sports editor William Newlin spoke with Girtz over the phone and via email to discuss his thoughts about the fall football season, the safety of athletes and the UGAAA's lapse in communication.
William Newlin: How do you plan to balance the desire for football — both economically and culturally — with the safety of fans?
Kelly Girtz: I will always work toward the interest of positive health outcomes, knowing that for the survival of the fans who bring so much to our community, they must be able to continue to do so for coming decades, not just in 2020 ... which requires them to stay healthy and stay alive. Ultimately, the close quarters experience that is part and parcel of tailgating and stadium attendance is counter to the absolute need for distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic ... To ask fans, stadium employees, public safety workers and others to put themselves at risk through a cycle of games that bring 90,000+ people to and from Athens multiple times through the autumn is not wise at this point, and counter to the very rationale for the [updated UGA] class schedule.
Newlin: What are your personal thoughts on the objections some have raised about young, unpaid, majority Black athletes risking their health on the football field this fall?
Girtz: This isn’t my area of expertise, but I would observe that unlike in Major League Baseball where there’s a union representing the interest of players, collegiate athletes are much more susceptible to the whims of the institution. So, I feel for them.
Newlin: Do you think the radio silence from UGA athletics regarding summer workouts and COVID-19 presents a public health issue for Athens residents?
Girtz: Every bit of clarity that institutions can offer (even knowing that there are some “unknowns” that we all face) is beneficial. In the absence of information, there is every reason to imagine that circumstances here are similar to those at Clemson or the University of Texas.
Newlin: The football team has said it has updated Georgia Public Health about players’ health status. Why do you think you haven’t been informed by GPH about the same subject?
Girtz: Generally, public health kind of owns their data. And so, we generally get what's publicly available. We don't have some sort of extra measure of communication beyond that. So, I can't speculate regarding exactly what the conversations are like between the university at large and the athletic association and public health. I mean, certainly other institutions like Clemson and Texas and others have been very specific about how many of their players have been positive for COVID[-19], and the University of Georgia has not taken as explicit a stance, there's no doubt about that.
Newlin: As mayor, do you think you have a right to know if cases have spread among football players while they’re in Athens?
Girtz: Well, I think the community broadly should have that information. So, beyond just me as a public official, I think that the greater degree of clarity, the more we can all implement health-enhancing measures.
Newlin: If the athletic association allows fans to attend games while socially distanced in the fall, would you go to a game?
Girtz: That would be a no. Nothing makes me happier than gathering with people who are really excited. That’s like one of my peak experiences as a person, whether it’s at a football game or a concert even more. I can’t wait until I can do that safely again. It’s part of what motivates me as a person and sort of keeps my spirits lifted. But again, I want myself, and my family and those around me to live another day.
These interviews were edited for length and clarity.