NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Were college football's COVID protocols for real - or for show?
An exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation has discovered that, for Middle Tennessee State University and the rest of Conference USA, what was required in public and what happened in private were sometimes two very different things.
Publicly, Middle Tennessee projected an image of a football team seemingly ready to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic head-on. Social media images showed coaches and players following protocols, maintaining social distancing when possible, wearing masks in public.
"We're always, we're so cognizant of wearing their masks and spacing out and everything," head coach Rick Stockstill said on his radio show at the beginning of the season.
But photos obtained by NewsChannel 5 Investigates reveal that, inside the locker rooms, none of those rules applied.
We showed the photos to the coach.
NewsChannel 5 noted, "They're all packed in there very tightly together, hardly anyone is wearing a mask."
"I've got my mask on, right?" Stockstill responded.
We followed up, "And how many other people have masks on?"
Stockstill's response: "It was a Conference USA rule that masks were not mandated in the locker room."
Which was why the coach had no problem with video, obtained through a public records request, showing his team's maskless locker-room celebration.
"We were following protocols, sir," Stockstill argued.
And what does that say about the protocols?
"I didn't make them."
In fact, Conference USA - the conference where Middle Tennessee plays - had a public standard and a private one.
The Conference's COVID-19 Minimum Standards of Operation specified that "face coverings must be worn by everyone on the field (except dressed participating student-athletes) at all times."
But, off the field, "individuals are not required to wear masks inside their designated team locker room."
"If Conference USA said that's OK, if the NCAA said that's OK, shame on them," said former Middle Tennessee offensive coordinator Tony Franklin.
Franklin pointed to Army's victory over Navy, where the team wore masks even as they celebrated.
"We decided to follow Conference USA rules over the Center of Disease Control, we decided to do that we're gonna let those guys be the scientist, instead of the CDC being a scientist," he added.
Athletic director Chris Massaro said he didn't really worry about such locker-room scenes because the players would have been tested at least two days before.
"Everybody that's in the locker room has to be tested," Massaro added.
NewsChannel 5 Investigates noted, "But just because someone tests negative on a Thursday doesn't mean they are going to be negative on a Saturday."
"You're absolutely right," Massaro agreed. "It doesn't guarantee it, but I think what you're doing is taking that risk down as low as you possibly can."
In fact, Massaro acknowledged that, the day after the photo of the locker-room gathering, someone in the group tested postive for COVID.
Middle Tennessee was forced to cancel the rest of its season.
"If you're going to be in that area and you're not going to have a mask on and you're positive, then you're going to infect someone else," Franklin insisted.
Back in the summer, the team also had an outbreak among strength coaches, then players, after Franklin had warned them about too many players crowding into the weight room not wearing masks.
And on the road meal times were also a challenge.
One stop, Franklin said, was especially bad.
"It was so confined that ... everybody was just like a clog and I went, 'Holy crap, this ain't good,'" he recalled.
Coach Stockstill insisted, "We followed the guidelines of each state."
NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "So there were times that players were all huddled together eating meals?"
"No, sir," Stockstill answered, adding: "I mean, not any more than what was allowed."
Franklin noted that some teams discontinued players all sitting together for meals.
"So you're sitting there for 15 or 20 minutes having a meal with each other to where now every protocol that you've said to do is broken because you're having a team meal," he said.
The athletic director says the school has already spaced out its weight room, and it's looking at other potential alterations.
Off camera, the athletic director told NewsChannel 5 Investigates that he personally told the head football coach that Coach Franklin was right about a lot of the concerns he was raising, that Stockstill needed to tighten up his operations.
"Our job is what have we learned, what could we do better to be better the second semester than what we were the first semester," he said.
Coach Franklin said that it will require an unwavering commitment to follow the science.
"Middle Tennessee football was part of the problem," Franklin said.
"I hope to flip to where that they're now part of the solution. And I think that they will be, because they're not going to have a choice because everybody in the world is going to be looking down every single day for at least the next few months."