As recently as a month ago, the Patriot League had begun to lay out plans for a fall sports season that would look different from any other. But the decision announced Monday by the 10-member conference that it would not be competing this fall felt inevitable.
Amid a surge of COVID-19 cases across the country, and in the wake of the Ivy League announcing the same last week, the conference acted.
“I thought we were all good three weeks ago,” said Holy Cross athletic director Marcus Blossom. “Then it just started changing and people started really questioning whether it was the right thing to do and the campus really trying to focus on making sure we can open the campus safely. Athletics being open safely just became more and more of an issue.
“Quite frankly, three weeks ago when we said we’re coming back but with all those restrictions, there weren’t many people excited about that. About no overnights and four-and-a-half hour [travel] each way, play a game, come back. It’s just not possible.”
Dean College, a Division 3 institution in Franklin, Mass., that competes in the Great Northeast Athletic Conference and in the Eastern Collegiate Football Conference, also canceled its fall season Monday due to coronavirus concerns.
The US Military Academy and Naval Academy, which intend to preserve their football rivalry, are exempt from the Patriot League’s fall cancellation. Any decision on their participation in competitive sports will be made by their superintendents.
“The collegiate athletics experience at all Patriot League institutions is valuable to fulfilling our educational and developmental missions, and the League recognizes that any degree of non-competition this fall is deeply disappointing to our student-athletes, coaches, and fans,” the Patriot League Council of Presidents said in a statement. ”However, the health and safety of our campuses and communities must be our highest priority.”
Like conferences across the country, the Patriot League began exploring options for a return to play at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March.
“We’ve talked about this option — no fall with the potential of moving it to the spring,” Blossom said. “We’ve talked about regional competition not connected to the Patriot League, so we just talked about playing schools in Massachusetts. We did whatever we could to try to compete.”
Last month, the Patriot League announced plans to push back the start of its season and truncate the schedule. Conference play was slated to start at the end of September and finish before Thanksgiving. Non-conference games couldn’t start before Sept. 4. Teams within the conference would not be permitted to fly to games and, with certain exceptions, there would be no overnight travel regular-season games.
“We tried,” Blossom said. “We looked at everything and this is kind of where we landed.”
Boston University athletic director Drew Marrochello echoed Blossom’s sentiments.
“There’s a feeling that there’s been so many twists and turns and so many plans that had to be scrapped,” Marrochello said. “That being said, we kept trying to play. I think that our athletes and coaches appreciated that as an institution, and as a league we were putting our best foot forward. All of our plans were to play.”
While the possibility remains of moving fall sports to the spring, it would come with its own set of challenges. As of now, winter sports athletes are still expected to return to campus for practice later in the year.
For BU, the next step will be working with its Hockey East partners as they look ahead to winter sports.
“It’s very similar to the conversations with the Patriot League,” Marrochello said. “We’ve had conversations just about alternate models. That’s being proactive and not being reactive. That’s exploring alternate ways to play. I imagine we’ll really be coming up with a codified, accepted plan over the next couple of weeks for hockey.”
Further decisions about winter and spring sports will be made later, possibly in September, Blossom said.
“If it is to clear up, and we were to have a spring season,” Blossom said, “I think it’s better than a fall season with a myriad of restrictions as well as the possibility of not concluding the fall season.”
Blossom pointed out that student-athletes who are not on scholarship now face a financial decision. Do they pay for a semester of school even though they won’t be able to play? Do they live at home, take classes remotely, and pass on being able to practice on campus? Do they take a deferral year? Those are questions they’ll have to answer quickly as July 19 is set as the date for students to declare their intentions for the fall semester.
“For one, for the student-athletes, do they make an investment in coming back,” Blossom said. “The student-athletes, they have a major decision to make.”
BU men’s soccer player George Abunaw had hopes of returning in the fall for his senior season with a Terriers team rejuvenated by the hiring of head coach Kevin Nylen in January.
“As the weeks went on and the months went on, in my mind, I couldn’t see how fall sports were going to happen,” he said. “Obviously, I wanted to hope for the best, so I was preparing like the season was going to happen — doing the workouts, getting my fitness up, playing, and practicing like the season was going to happen.”
Seeing the resources it’s taken for the NBA and MLS to restart their seasons in elaborate bubbles with strict guidelines, Abunaw couldn’t imagine how it would be feasible to go through with college sports.
“This is just from a purely personal standpoint: I just thought it was further delaying the inevitable,” Abunaw said. “You just see what’s going on right now. Things aren’t necessarily getting better. You have problems. You see two MLS teams pull out of their MLS Is Back tournament due to a rise in cases. Even the college football teams that have been in camps this summer have had numerous cases. You see them closing down the voluntary workouts.
“So you see one side of it where they’re telling you, ‘It’s fine. We’re just going to play conference [games].’ ‘We’re just not going to fly.’ Then you see the numbers just rising, and the cases just rising, and those two things just weren’t adding up. So that’s why I kind of prepared myself for this decision.”
Abunaw said Marrochello held an emergency meeting Monday to inform student-athletes of the Patriot League’s decision and to re-emphasize that the university was hopeful about salvaging fall sports.
Even though the disappointment was palpable, Abunaw understood the circumstances.
“As soon as the pandemic happened, it was never a thought about myself or playing — ever,” Abunaw said. “Obviously you want to play, but you want to do it in the safest way possible. You see cases rising, you see people being affected. Right from the start, I thought it was selfish to be only thinking about myself and playing the sport. So I completely get it, I completely understand it. Obviously, it’s a less than ideal situation, but the most important thing we have in our life is our health and I wouldn’t want to participate in anything that jeopardized the health of someone else or someone else’s family.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.