Mistrust and miscommunication appear to be the root of a dispute between the UA athletic department and fourth-year offensive lineman Edgar Burrola, who has been suspended for violating the program’s COVID-19 protocols.
Burrola, a redshirt junior from Las Vegas, was suspended last week and had his scholarship stripped of participation benefits, including his cost-of-living stipend and team-provided meals.
Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin said that if a member of the football program doesn’t “adhere to the protocol” — which includes mandatory face coverings, physical distancing and regular hand-washing — “then we can’t have you here.”
In interviews Wednesday, Burrola, 21, asserted that his reluctance to follow the department’s health and safety protocols stems from a lack of trust in the UA medical staff. He said that lack of trust began last season, when, according to Burrola, the medical staff misdiagnosed a shoulder injury.
His trust further eroded when he got into an argument about mask-wearing with Dr. Stephen Paul, the primary author of the UA’s athletics reentry plan. Burrola conceded that he was not wearing a mask at that time and did in fact break the protocol on four occasions.
Burrola also did not believe that his roommate, a football player who received a positive COVID-19 test result, had been properly treated by the medical staff.
Burrola has expressed skepticism about the severity of the coronavirus pandemic through social media. In late May, he tweeted that “COVID-19 is fake.” He deleted that tweet this week and said his stance has changed somewhat .
“I think that was poor wording,” Burrola said. “I tweeted out of emotion. I think the virus is serious. I just don’t think it’s being handled the right way.”
Overall, Burrola said, he felt as if he was being singled out and treated unfairly. People within the program contend they have tried to help Burrola but that he has rejected most of the support that has been offered.
“It’s a hard time,” Burrola said. “There’s so much going on in my life. It’s affecting me, and I feel like the football team doesn’t really see that — they just think I’m rebellious or want attention. But I’m actually going through a lot.
“I just feel alone, and I’m hesitant to talk to someone. It’s difficult to find someone to trust, because the people who I trusted the most ended up being untrustworthy.”
Burrola appeared in 11 games last season, making six starts, in his first significant action as a Wildcat. He split time at right tackle with junior-college transfer Paiton Fears and described the experience as “so much fun.”
Early in the season, Burrola said, he hurt his left shoulder. He requested an MRI exam but was told the injury was only a bone bruise and an MRI wasn’t necessary. After the season, Burrola sought a second opinion. He ended up having surgery in January for a torn labrum. Burrola’s family had to pay for the procedure, he said.
“I was misdiagnosed,” Burrola said. “How did it happen? It happens because we let it happen.
“We really don’t have anywhere else to go (for) a second opinion. Like, who can you tell? A lot of players are scared they’re going to take their scholarship away or something, so they don’t say anything.”
Sumlin generally steers clear of situations involving players’ health. The program’s stance is that players are welcome to get second opinions if they don’t agree with the medical staff’s diagnosis. Arizona’s training staff took over Burrola’s physical therapy and rehab when he returned to campus after the surgery.
Last fall wasn’t without trouble for Burrola. He was suspended for the Nov. 16 game at Oregon because of what he described as an “incident with school police.” He was reinstated for the final two games of the season.
Burrola does not dispute that he violated the UA’s COVID-19 protocols, which were shaped by Paul and other medical professionals; he questions whether they’re appropriate.
“I do believe in taking precaution and (protecting) other people,” Burrola said, before adding: “I think a lot of this is blown out of proportion.”
In a subsequent interview, Burrola said: “I don’t want to social distance, do hand sanitizer every time I walk in. It doesn’t seem necessary to me.”
The first of the four incidents that led to Burrola’s suspension happened in late June, when he showed up without a mask or shirt to pick up a meal.
The second happened when he arrived on campus for a drive-up COVID-19 test. The drive-up tests were put in place for those who had come in contact with someone who had tested positive — in this case, Burrola’s roommate.
Burrola didn’t think he needed to wear a mask for the test, and there was some confusion about whether he was supposed to be there and where he was supposed to go. That’s when the argument ensued with Dr. Paul, who “started yelling at me for no reason,” Burrola said.
The two subsequently exchanged e-mails about their interaction. Paul wrote he “was not intentionally being rude but rather forceful to remind you to comply with our policy on masking. Your behavior … places you, your teammates and our staff at risk of contracting coronavirus infection.”
When his roommate tested positive for COVID-19, Burrola was told to quarantine for two weeks. He said he twice violated the quarantine, once to pick up food and another time to help a friend move.
On July 22, Burrola met with Dennis Polian, Sumlin’s chief of staff; Brian DeSpain, the UA’s director of football operations; and Kyle DeVan, the Wildcats’ offensive line coach. They told Burrola that was being suspended.
Burrola had spoken with DeVan the previous day, relaying many of his concerns. Burrola said that he told DeVan that he wanted to opt out of the 2020 season “because I didn’t feel safe with the protocols. … I didn’t trust the medical staff.”
The UA and the Pac-12 have stated that any student-athlete can choose not to participate this year if they are concerned about their well-being and that they will remain in good standing. But the UA football program did not interpret Burrola’s request that way, especially in light of his previous behavior — including his flaunting of the mask mandate.
“While we will not address the specifics involving an internal program matter, we can confidently state that any individual who has expressed concerns about his health and safety has been provided support and resources, including the option of not participating in any team activities at this time,” Sumlin said in a statement.
“The protocols and procedures that are in place are there to protect the health and well-being of all our student-athletes, coaches and staff, and to be clear, we will not relax those standards at any time or allow individuals to choose to not adhere to those protocols.”
Future with the Wildcats?
The decision-makers in the program, led by Sumlin, believed they had no choice but to suspend Burrola — that they couldn’t let him violate the protocols without consequences.
Although his monthly stipend of more than $1,000 and his meal plan have been taken away for the time being, Burrola still has access to university resources. He said he has an appointment Thursday with Michelle Skog, a mental-health counselor for CATS Medical Services, after it was determined during his initial wellness check-in in June that he might have ADHD.
“There was one point where I wasn’t talking to anybody,” Burrola said. “My family had misunderstood me, so I can’t really turn to them. I can’t count on some of the people (with the team) I used to talk to.
“The real people are backing me. That’s all that matters. But I’m good. I feel the love being shown to me. Anybody who takes the time to listen, it’s greatly appreciated.”
Burrola isn’t sure what the future holds for him at Arizona. He works in the offseason for his family’s Las Vegas-based roofing company. He also bought a house in Tucson.
“I have long-term plans,” Burrola said, “and it’ll be a shame if I have to leave.”
Burrola says he wants to play football again. If the revised Pac-12 schedule starts Sept. 19, the Wildcat could begin training camp around Aug. 21.
“But I’m not gonna let myself be in a toxic environment (just) because I love the game,” he said. “I respect myself more than I love the game.”
Star reporter Justin Spears contributed to this story.
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