When the Ivy League canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in March at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the criticism was sharp and swift, but the conference proved to be ahead of the curve.
The Ivy League announced Wednesday its schools will not be competing in fall sports, as the country navigates spikes in COVID-19 cases four months later. While it’s uncertain if the decision will be the first domino for other conferences, it will undoubtedly have a ripple effect on schools and conferences across the Northeast.
“I think it was anticipated; so it wasn’t a surprise,” Holy Cross athletic director Marcus Blossom said. o “We’ve been watching not only the Ivy League but what a lot of the other conferences may do in the fall and trying to figure out what we plan on doing.
“I don’t think that’s going to be the only one. It seems that over the past three weeks, the country’s changed a little bit. If you had asked me three weeks ago, I would’ve been certain that we were playing in the fall. Then the virus started to have a resurgence across the country. I knew there would be some problems. So the Ivy League decision wasn’t a surprise.”
Officials from conferences at all levels across the country have been holding conversations throughout the pandemic about the possibility of pushing back sports to the spring semester. The Ivy League was the first to take action.
In the wake of the Ivy’s decision, the Big Ten announced Thursday it will adopt a conference-only schedule for fall sports, including football. The Atlantic Coast Conference announced that Olympic fall sports will be delayed until at least Sept. 1. The Ivy League’s decision also will have direct effects on Holy Cross, Northeastern and UMass schedules, from soccer, field hockey, and volleyball to men’s and women’s basketball and ice hockey later in the year.
Harvard athletic director Erin McDermott and Boston College’s Pat Kraft, both of whom were hired in the last two months, were unavailable for comment.
While many were optimistic about a college sports restart a month ago when the NCAA lifted its moratorium on on-campus activities, allowing student-athletes to return for voluntary workouts, the surge of confirmed cases in Florida, South Carolina, and elsewhere have tempered expectations.
“Where I think this is going is, probably, we’re not trending in the right direction for the fall sports, I can tell you that,” UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford said. “I would’ve felt differently three weeks ago, but I think the way the pandemic has mounted in some of the geographical hot spots in the country, it’s created a real challenge for us as an industry.”
As a public university that serves 22,000 students and plays in the Atlantic 10 Conference, UMass is navigating a different set of circumstances than the schools in the Ivy League as it charts its course for the fall. While Harvard, for instance, announced that only 40 percent of its undergraduates will be on campus this fall, UMass intends to reopen in August with almost all classes being offered remotely but also giving students the option to live on campus under public health restrictions.
UMass has already taken steps to reshape what sports will look like in the fall by reducing the number of games for fall Olympic sports, along with pushing back start dates and preseason for football. The changes give the school more time to consider difficult decisions.
“I think we’re all arriving at a place where the reality of the next six weeks is that we have to weigh the health and safety of our people,” Bamford said.
UMass brought athletes back for voluntary workouts on June 22, and like many schools across the country, dealt with coronavirus cases that felt inevitable.
“We fully anticipated that in bringing them back and testing them that we were going to have some positive tests and thankfully of all the student-athletes and coaches and staff that have come back to us, we’ve tested over 150 times and we’ve only had one positive test,” Bamford said. “So that is very different than a lot of the things you’ve read and seen and heard at a lot of other places. Our goal now is to make sure that we’re being smart about the way that we manage our day-to-day life.”
Holy Cross athletes will return with the rest of the student body in the fall, also delaying the fall season. As schools examine their policies on social distancing and large gatherings when students return, it raises a question about how sports will be able to follow those guidelines. Blossom said there have been discussions about granting exceptions for large gatherings, but that would have to go through the Patriot League.
Northeastern is planning to reopen in September and also to have facilities open accordingly. One of the top concerns for Northeastern and other schools in the Colonial Athletic Association has been minimizing exposure levels, which led to the conference’s focus on regional play to limit air travel and hotel stays.
“It’s kind of like trying to guess the weather in a way, right?” said Northeastern athletic director Jeff Konya. “You’re looking at all the atmospheric conditions to try and predict what’s going to happen in the short term and intermediate term.
“At the CAA level, we’ve been really proactive in trying to be very intentional with how to go about being smart about what the fall could look like with health and safety being in the forefront.”
In June, the CAA announced what it called the “Extreme Flexibility Model,” giving schools in the same region the option to forgo conference games and play each other multiple times to avoid cost and safety issues.
“At this point, the fall is still on the books from an NCAA standpoint,” Konya said. “We have had many conversations as athletic directors, as the board of directors at the CAA and even Hockey East with what would be our most appropriate response.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.