FARGO — There is a definite North Dakota State vibe in the Kansas State football program. Head coach Chris Klieman, offensive coordinator Courtney Messingham, offensive line coach Conor Riley and others all coached together in Fargo. Wildcats athletic director Gene Taylor was the Bison boss for many years.
So maybe the current NDSU coaching staff and administration can lean on that connection to help get the Bison vaccinated against COVID-19.
- McFeely: COVID vaccination rates in Missouri Valley Football Conference lag, meaning spring-like mess possible this fall
Klieman said Wednesday at Big 12 media day that his team has an 80% vaccination rate, an impressive figure for a college football team and not terribly far from the coveted 85% rate that would be considered herd immunity and allow the Wildcats to stop COVID testing — even unvaccinated players.
It would guarantee the Wildcats wouldn't lose players to positive COVID tests during the season, which would then guarantee they wouldn't have to forfeit a game if one or more position groups were too thin because of COVID-related issues.
This should be the goal of every college football team. Get every player, coach and staff member possible vaccinated. Hit 85%. Relieve yourself of the burden of frequent testing. Guarantee a full season.
It isn't anywhere near that easy. As I wrote last week, Missouri Valley Football Conference commissioner Patty Viverito said that as of about one month ago, Valley teams reported their vaccination rates anywhere from 20% to 70%. She said she'd heard other FCS conferences had even lower rates.
Regardless of your opinion on the virus — whether you think it's phony, whether you think young people are impervious to its effects — COVID is going to continue to be an issue for the fall 2021 football season. Maybe not as big of an issue as it was in the spring for FCS schools, but the virus hasn't gone away. In fact, it is surging in parts of the country thanks to the more contagious Delta variant.
Conferences, athletic programs and football staffs are having discussions on how to deal with it. This is a fact.
I don't know where the NDSU football program's vaccination rate sits. I've asked a couple of times and haven't received a number. But if it's not above 75%, with fall camp beginning in three weeks, athletic director Matt Larsen and head coach Matt Entz should be punching phone numbers with 785 area codes and asking questions.
"Hello, Chris? How are you getting your players to buy in on getting vaccinated?"
"Gene, what's the secret?"
The answers might not be all that surprising.
What is motivating hesitant players to get vaccinated is mostly the relief of no longer having to be tested and the solace of knowing they most likely won't get COVID so they won't miss any games. It's simple: No swabs up the nose and playing time are tremendous incentives.
(It should be noted that the Big 12 still requires athletes to be tested three times a week, giving league coaches leverage FCS programs don't have. FCS athletes are not currently being tested. A Big 12 coach can dangle a tasty looking carrot by saying, "If you get jabbed, you won't have to have a swab pushed up your nose three times a week.")
Beyond that, Kansas State has benefitted from athlete-to-athlete peer pressure and ongoing education about vaccines. The Wildcats have held Q and A sessions with doctors, so hesitant athletes and their parents or guardians could have their questions answered.
Kansas State made an African-American doctor available to answer questions from Black athletes and families, which Taylor said was a particularly important step. African-Americans have nearly the lowest rates of vaccination among ethnic groups, partially because of a historical distrust of government and the medical system. Google "Tuskegee Study" if you're wondering why about the latter.
Former Wildcats currently in the NFL have talked with the team and urged the players get vaccinated.
That 80% of Kansas State's football team is fully vaccinated is an upset. Kansas' vaccination rate as a whole is 42%, so the football team has surpassed that by almost 100%. And keep in mind football teams — K-State's roster lists 130 players — have the same differences as society as a whole. There are Blacks and whites, Republicans and Democrats, conservative Christians and more progressive Christians, rural backgrounds and urban backgrounds.
All the conspiracy theories and misinformation (and general distrust of COVID vaccines as being unsafe) that affect society are swirling within a football team.
The Big 12 might do its part to encourage players to get vaccinated. It won't mandate vaccinations, but might require that if a team is beset by COVID issues and doesn't have enough healthy players to take the field, that team will forfeit. Unlike last fall in FBS and the spring in FCS, there won't be built-in open weeks to reschedule games. The MVFC should take the same approach.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, a Minnesota State University Moorhead graduate, said the conference will continue with some kind of testing of unvaccinated players this season.
"Frankly, anyone not getting vaccinated is taking unnecessary risks," he said at the league's media day. "And that's not just our student-athletes, it's anybody in our society."
Kansas State has a goal of getting about 90% of its players vaccinated by September. Based on a 130-man roster, that would 117 players. The Wildcats have about 104 players vaccinated now.
Taylor said the push to 85% or 90% might be difficult because the last holdouts have strong opinions about the vaccine.
But Wildcats will continuing pushing. It's impressive enough they've reached 80%.
Perhaps NDSU can gain a few pointers and hit a similar figure soon, getting the Bison within reach of 85% and all the benefits that go with that figure.