The show must go on: Fall sports to return but with restrictions

By Tamar Mosby, Editor

As spring flowers began to bloom, so did the coronavirus and with it came the disappearance of sports. 

Four months later across the world, professional sports, like soccer and basketball, have resumed and now that the new semester is around the corner, we are seeing several universities announce their plans to participate in the 2020 fall athletic season.

Among the bunch is SIU, which plans to have five different sports teams competing in the upcoming season including football, volleyball, soccer, golf and cross country. 

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At the beginning of July, many Saluki student-athletes arrived on campus with one contracting the coronavirus within the first weeks of the return. 

In order to maintain the health and safety of their athletes, many collegiate athletic conferences and associations are choosing to forego the 2020 season. These include the Colonial Athletic Association, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, the Patriot League, the Ivy League, the Centennial Conference, and the NJCAA.

Saluki athletic director Liz Jarnigan said she and the athletics staff at Southern went to work forming a plan for fall when they heard news of the indefinite suspension of the 2020 spring season.

“We consulted with a lot of different entities in order to work on developing our plan,” Jarnigan said. “We’ve consulted closely with the Jackson County Health Department. We are keeping close watch over the governor’s requirements of our state and the ‘Restore Illinois’ plans and ensuring what we plan to do falls within our health department and governor’s guidelines. We consult with what the CDC has to say and we’ve also relied heavily on information from medical personnel at the NCAA, his name is Dr. Hainline”

Dr. Brian Hainline is the Chief Medical Officer of the NCAA and head of the association’s newly commissioned COVID-19 advisory panel.

The panel itself consists of some of the foremost medical, public health and epidemiology experts and has discussed and helped develop a protocol for universities who decide to participate in the 2020 season. 

Among the strategies thought of by the NCAA, Jarnigan said, is a tiering system where each of the university sports is ranked in terms of risk.

“The NCAA has an outwards, sort of tiering model in terms of high risk, moderate risk, and low risk with regard to COVID and that model is based on guidance from the CDC,” Jarnigan said. “Those of our fall sports [football, volleyball, and soccer] are classified in the high risk and cross country is obviously much lower.”

The protocol Jarnigan and the department developed was implemented at the beginning of the month and contains pages of details that address building entry and usage, sanitation and athlete-specific regulations.

“We had to shut down access to our athletics facilities to the general public to maintain the safest environment that we possibly can. Many of us worked remotely from home through May, then we started to bring more staff in in June. We’ve changed traffic patterns within our facilities and there is signage everywhere. We have limited the use of lavatories. Cleaning components have [also] gone into place for our facilities,” Jarnigan said.

Athletes arrived on campus in what the athletic department has called “gates” with the first gate consisting of 50 student-athletes from the football and men’s and women’s basketball programs. The second gate came a bit later and sang the arrival of more students: this time to the tune of 77.

Once the student-athletes returned to campus, they attended meetings with staff and underwent the appropriate medical testing.

“Upon their return they went through a detailed education session with our staff,” Jarnigan said.  “We did multiple sessions to keep groups of 10 or less [with] social distancing and wearing masks. Towards the end of that period, they quarantined for seven days then tested for COVID-19.”

While no official practices have been started by the SIU athletics program, the facilities are open for voluntary workouts and access to athletic training for the athletes who have been tested and quarantined. 

As far as practices, the NCAA has not released specific guidelines for universities to implement, but coaches are likely to base practices on the information provided to them by the department Jarnigan said.

When the competitive season begins, Jarnigan has plans to monitor the athletes participating with regular temperature and symptom checks. She is also currently a member of an MVC COVID Competition Working Group that is working on plans to keep athletes safe throughout the season. 

“We’re working on those [practices meant to monitor the athletes’ health during the season],” Jarnigan said. “As guidelines from the CDC and Health Department change, we’re having to keep up with those guidelines almost on an hour-to-hour, day-to-day basis to ensure that we get to a place where competition is safe. We feel good about the plan that we have and the protocols that we have in place for when a positive COVID test pops up.”

It is not certain whether regular testing will be offered as a part of the monitoring process but if an athlete tests positive for COVID-19 the health department will take over and conduct contact tracing to determine which individuals are required to quarantine.

For the tests Southern has conducted thus far, SIH has been the facilitator and provider.

In regards to fan attendance, the number of individuals allowed to enter the outdoor facilities must be decreased with certain restrictions and social distancing practices put into place, while there are to be no fans permitted into the indoor facilities.

“We will be following the mandate that was given to us by the governor of our state and currently the mandate is that we limit outdoor capacity to 20%,” Jarnigan said. “There is no allowance for fans in indoor facilities at this date [and] there is also no tailgating allowed at this point.” 

 Luckily, many of the fall sporting events take place in outdoor facilities meaning fans will be able to attend events for all but one of the fall sports SIU is taking part in. 

Volleyball games are currently unable to be attended by fans as the sport is held inside Davies Gym. 

As far as the selection of who will make up the 20% capacity crowd at football games, Jarnigan said that there has been no decision made, but named season ticket holders and students as priorities in the process.

Because student attendance at university football games has been sparse in the past years, Jarnigan is unsure of the amount of students they will allow to attend games.

“As things stand right now, we have our priority list to make these determinations. Students of course are a part of the equation and we certainly want to allow students in,” Jarnigan said. “Unfortunately, in past years, students have just not been showing up for events [and] it’s been discouraging and sad. If we have students that are going to want to come in, we want to be able to accommodate them to the best of our ability.”

The number of Southern Illinois fans within Carbondale purchasing football tickets has steadily decreased every year.

Based on records from the 2019 season, SIU was ranked seventh out of 11 teams in home game attendance in the Missouri Valley Football Conference with an average of 6,456 guests, only topping Missouri State’s average by six.

This problem, which has been plaguing the Saluki athletic department for years, could also be its saving grace. Because attendance has been so low in recent years, it is possible that Southern may not lose any money due to capacity cutbacks.

“When we’re talking about football, unfortunately people haven’t been coming to our games. So to fill our football stadium at 20% capacity, we can pretty much allow those people who have come in the past in with a new seating place, making sure that we have social distancing concepts implemented,” Jarnigan said. “The good news is, we think we can seat everyone who is used to coming.”

The prioritization of season ticket holders and students however, could mean the discontinuation of single ticket sales for other fans if capacity is exhausted. Jarnigan stressed that if fans want to attend the games, it is important to get tickets now.

No live streaming information was given for fans who are unable to attend games, but a large majority of SIU sporting events can be seen on ESPN+ with a subscription.

Jarnigan said that much of the protocol is not set in stone as new information is constantly provided to her concerning the virus. 

Regardless of this, Jarnigan says she is confident in the plans that have been made and hopeful for statewide improvement by December.

Editor Tāmar Mosby can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @mosbytamar.

To stay up to date with all your Southern Illinois news, follow the Daily Egyptian on Facebook and Twitter.

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