Earlier this month, the Middle Atlantic Conference — which includes Arcadia, Delaware Valley and Widener locally — was officially optimistic about hosting sports in the fall. A statement put out by the MAC on July 10 said the NCAA Division III conference “intends to pursue” fall sports.
That intention lasted all of two weeks. In the interim, a week after the first announcement, a week before the announcement that the MAC was suspending its fall sports, came a guidance from the NCAA called “Developing Standards for Practice and Competition.”
Among the bullet points: “Testing and results should be obtained within 72 hours of competition in high contact risk sports.” Another: “Testing strategies should be implemented for all athletics activities, including preseason, regular season, and post-season.”
“The testing piece got really daunting,” said Delaware Valley athletic director Dave Duda.
Meaning the cost of testing?
“Combination,” Duda said. “The testing being costly, yes. Just as daunting, getting the results back quickly for that number of sports.”
It’s easy to look at the NCAA as the football and basketball games you watch on television. The NCAA says there are 438 Division III non-scholarship programs, to 350 Division I scholarship programs. In between, there are 310 Division II programs, which are permitted to have scholarships, but typically don’t have the same revenue streams as Division I.
So if most of the NCAA is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic without the resources of Division I, the discussions at that level have been different, and the decisions to shut down fall sports have typically come quicker than in Division I.
“I think it’s bigger than just the costs,” said Rosemont president Jayson Boyers about the discussion for fall sports within the Colonial States Athletic Conference. “I can tell you, before the recent surge [in COVID-19 cases] there was more optimism. Before the surge came into our line of sight.”
Within academia, discussions touch on costs, but also on the obligations, not just to their students, but to society. According to a source on one league phone call, one president of a small private school said, “I can’t take a test away from someone who really needs it so a student-athlete can play a sport.”
Asked whether such discussions had taken place in the CSAC, Boyers said, “We’ve heard that conversation. We’ve heard it in the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, the Big Ten. That conversation is out there. … We have college presidents who are vested in their community and want to do the right thing for their community. That kind of conversation is important to have in a public forum.”
Back to the daunting costs of testing.
“One of the [MAC] athletic directors estimated that for one Saturday football game, if you had 80 players, 20 staff, you’d need 100 tests, $55 a test, $5,500 for one game,” Duda said. “Just for football, it would take $50,000 just to complete the season. And I don’t think there were any of us on the call that said, ‘Yes, we can have all the tests back in 72 hours.’ ”
For quicker tests, Duda said, the price skyrockets. And at higher levels, doing substantially more tests, with quicker results required … the costs get to be eye-popping.
“It was discussed among the presidents,” Ursinus president Brock Blomberg. “We talked about what some D1 programs were estimating their costs to be. At least one D1 president mentioned to our group — I think the figure was between $3 and $6 million dollars just for football.”
By the time the NCAA came out with its July guidance, the Centennial already had announced it was suspending fall play, with the caveat that the league — which includes Ursinus, Haverford, Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore locally — could revisit the decision in September, giving the decision-makers the latest possible final deadline.
“We wanted to say, what if things change?” Blomberg said. “They have. Unfortunately, they’ve changed in the opposite direction of what we hoped.”
“Testing wasn’t exactly going to be this big huge thing in May,” said Ursinus athletic director Laura Moliken. “Cases were coming down across the country. It seemed the trend was going in the right direction. But in the last couple of months we’ve seen the trend go the other way.
“I think the half-life of all decisions that are made in this environment are about a week,” Blomberg said.
He gave testing as an example of that.
“We were all feeling confident about testing a month or two ago,” Blomberg said. “We have really great relationships with LabCorp and with Quest. They’re great firms. No disrespect. But as we were moving forward, the big firms were saying, ‘We can’t get them back to you in seven days.’ Well, that’s not going to be effective. We’ve had to find different firms that can give us a quicker response rate.”
The Centennial was one of the first conferences in any division to make a decision about fall sports. Was it tough to come up with a league-wide consensus?
“The answer is yes,” Blomberg said. “We started as presidents talking in May. We had almost weekly or biweekly meetings. We’d all explain what our similar campus plans were. But when it got to the question of what do you want to do about the fall, we kept saying, let’s push this off until we have some more clarity. … I would say the guiding principle universally across every campus was we didn’t want to treat our student-athletes any different than our other students. If we were going to make concessions for sports, we were going to make those same concessions for our dance program, people who are in Greek life. We were trying to have that kind of a balance. So that conversation was really what each individual campus was wrestling with at that point.”
Also, Blomberg pointed out, “It’s a very data-driven group. We’re looking a lot at what’s in the data. And one member of our conference is Johns Hopkins. We read a lot of really timely information.”
But if some universities weren’t going to let student groups travel, that would make it tough to have a league sports schedule. One factor in trying to provide early direction was to give students a chance to decide their own plans, whether to take classes in the fall or turn a four-year plan into a five-year plan.
None of these local D3 conferences have ruled out having fall sports compete in the spring.
“I’ve suggested to our coaches that they lead their students both with positivity but also realism,” Moliken said. “I would suggest that’s where the presidents are too. The optimism piece kind of varies day-to-day week-to-week.”
“There’s a good-faith belief that before this academic year is over, there will be an athletic experience for our students-athletes,” Boyers said. “I have that hope and I believe there’s reason to have it.”
Nobody knows what the data will show when it comes time to decide on winter and spring sports, or whether fall sports could be played in the spring. Duda makes the point that if COVID-19 hurdles can be overcome, other logistical hurdles shouldn’t rule the decisions.
“I say, for one semester, we can do anything,” Duda said. “The kids deserve it. It won’t be pretty. Guess what, for 90 days, if it’s safe to play, I think we all have to take on more responsibilities to make it happen.”
Duda knows that “if it’s safe to play” is a massive asterisk. In his league, the fall landscape changed dramatically within two weeks. Predicting eight months out to the spring of 2021 seems like the realm of science fiction. Maybe the best anyone can do is say they “intend to pursue,” then hope the intention lasts more than two weeks.