Small conferences are having to make tough decisions in COVID-19 era

By Michael Kinney

Jim Jackson had a feeling it was coming. After countless phone conversations, Cameron’s Athletic Director saw the writing on the wall.

So when the Lone Star Conference announced Friday, they were shutting down the fall athletic season for certain sports, Jackson was not surprised.

“I expected it, to be quite honest when the NCAA came out and canceled the fall championships. And I’ve been on calls every week with the administrators of all 18 institutions,” Jackson said. “We’ve talked about what the preference of each institution was, and so I kind of anticipated.”

Cameron is one of 18 programs in the Lone Star Conference. They all are either in Division II or smaller.

During a meeting Aug. 7, the Lone Star Conference Council of Presidents postponed all competition in the sports of football, soccer, volleyball and basketball. Instead of canceling the season outright, the conference just moved the competitions into the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not all schools agreed with the decision.

“Although we understand the LSC Council of Presidents vote to postpone fall sports competition in football, soccer, and volleyball, it is still disappointing to us here at Angelo State University,” ASU Director of Athletics James Reid said. “We know that it was not an easy decision and trust that it was made after diligent deliberation by campus administrators. Our student-athletes, coaches and staff felt very confident in our ability to conduct practices and competitions while keeping all parties safe during the fall.”

Football, soccer, volleyball and basketball, which are classified as high contact risk sports by the NCAA resocialization principles, can practice during the fall under all applicable NCAA Division II rules, but not compete until the spring.

Before the big Division I conferences started to drop out of fall competition, the smaller conferences around the country had already kicked off the trend. The Colonial Athletic Association, The American East, The Atlantic 10, The East Coast Conference, The Commonwealth Coast Conference and North East Athletic Conference shut their doors on fall sports in July.

 A part of it has to do with money.

Once the LSC started to look at the cost of providing COVID-19 tests for every athlete, multiple times a week, it was going an almost impossible situation for some schools.

“I think there’s a couple of hurdles. One is the cost of the testing and whether it’s available in your area,” Jackson said. “Now, the PCR (rapid) test, which the Lone Star Conference adopted, is anywhere from $50 to $125, depending upon where you live and what the availability of it is. So that’s certainly a hurdle.”

Even if Cameron was able to find the money to test, they also had to guarantee they could get the results back immediately. That was something he didn’t think they could do.

“If you’re a high-risk sport, you have to test 72 hours prior to competition. So volleyball would have to get their tests back 72 hours prior,” Jackson said. “That’s no guarantee either. As it was explained to me, our Comanche County Health Department sends the tests to Norman, and they said they’re turning them in 48 hours. However, she said, if a lab would go down in Oklahoma City, all those tests would be transferred to Norman, and so you might have a delay up to 96 hours. There’s no guarantee, depending upon what the situation is.”

However, according to Jackson, the biggest factor for the postponement came down to doing what was best for the student-athletes. With so much unknown about COVID-19, the LSC presidents decided to error on the side of safety.

“I really think it came down to the presidents and the administrators just deciding, you know what, it’s just not safe. It’s not safe to have the contact sports yet,” Jackson said. “And if we delay till January 1, there might be a lot happen. I mean, people know the virus is not going to go away that quick, but there might be advancements in the testing process and the cost of the test, and so I think that’s what we’re hoping for, and we’re hoping for a downturn in the number of cases as well.”

The decision follows the cancelation of all NCAA Fall 2020 Championships in Division II. That includes any that are moved into the spring.

“After reviewing and discussing the Board of Governors’ directives, the Division II Presidents Council made the difficult decision that holding fall championships in any capacity was not a viable or fiscally responsible option for Division II,” said Sandra Jordan, chancellor of South Carolina Aiken and chair of the council. “This decision was discussed very thoroughly, and I assure you, it was not made lightly. It is important to note that fall student-athletes will be given eligibility-related flexibility to allow them championship opportunities in the future. As we move forward, we will continue to focus on providing the best championships experience for our winter and spring student-athletes who were not afforded those opportunities at the beginning of this pandemic.”

Cross country will still compete in the fall as scheduled. Golf and tennis will also be allowed are permitted to compete in their non-championship segments in the fall.  No other outside competition will be allowed.

“I was hoping that they would allow us to play and start the low-risk sports, such as tennis, golf, and mid-risk cross country, which they did,” Jackson said. “I just didn’t know whether that was going to happen or not, but I figured they would cancel football and volleyball and soccer.”

Practices in all sports remain delayed until no earlier than August 24.  Further, competition in cross country, golf and tennis, which are classified by the NCAA as low and medium contact risk sports, may not start prior to the week of September 21.

Because Cameron does not have a football team, the decision doesn’t have the same effect on them as with other programs throughout the Division II & III ranks. The Aggies are also without a soccer team, so they essentially only needed to move its volleyball schedule and the first half of the basketball schedules into the spring of 2021.

“The blessing is, we don’t have football, and that’s the monster,” Jackson said. “To have a football game on a Saturday and you’re trying to host volleyball and baseball at the same time, I’m not sure we could do that. But we don’t have soccer and we don’t have football, so I think what we have, we can get done.”

Jackson said Cameron will take a small hit financially this fall due to not having the ticket gates from volleyball and the few games they will miss from basketball. But he says the biggest blow will come from boosters.

Jackson has already seen the hits come when he had to cancel an annual golf tournament in June due to COVID-19.

“At this level, at Division II, you don’t make a lot on the gate anyway,” Jackson said. “But I think the biggest thing will be the amount of donations to the booster club, and I think that will suffer, because times are tough right now and some people have lost their jobs, that normally participate.”

Photo provided by Cameron University Athletics

Story By Michael Kinney/Michael Kinney Media

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