MOSCOW, Idaho – The novel coronavirus upended college athletics as basketball was about to embark on March Madness.
Spring football and spring sports saw seasons end while they were waiting in the wings.
But sports inspire nothing if not hope. In the wake of the wreckage of the past three months, the University of Idaho is undertaking planning that could bring student-athletes back to campus by August, four to eight weeks before the start of fall sport competitive seasons.
It is a process that involves attempting to peer over the horizon to spot issues that may not yet be apparent, and it is an endeavor Idaho athletics officials and other university leaders are taking in stages.
“The goal moving forward is we have got to get all student-athletes working out,” said Chris Walsh, UI director of athletic training services.
If the Vandals can complete a period in which teams can train as a whole, according to Walsh, the next goal will be giving them a protocol that would allow them to compete in an era when everyone involved in athletics must be mindful about keeping coronavirus from breaking out again with the explosive growth that brought the country to a screeching halt this spring.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” Walsh said.
Two years down the road, universities like Idaho will have a frame of reference for dealing with the coronavirus, he said.
“It’s really complicated,” Walsh said. “There are a lot of unknowns.”
The NCAA has issued a series of Core Principles of Resocialization of Collegiate Sport to offer guidance to member schools eager to resume athletics.
In its introduction, the NCAA document flatly states the reality confronting college sports.
“Resocialization must be rolled out in a stepwise manner that helps ensure sustained low infection spread coupled with the ability to rapidly diagnose and isolate new cases … upward spikes in infection spread may cause resocialization efforts to halt or even retreat until infection spikes lower again,” it reads.
Another of the principles stated something Walsh already understands.
“All college athletes are first and foremost students. Thus, resocialization of collegiate sport must be grounded in resocialization of college campuses,” according to the NCAA guideline.
Some professional leagues are investigating creating bubbles within which teams, coaches and support personnel will live during a competitive season, but quarantining in an athletic space is a difficult thing to implement in college athletics, Walsh said.
“We all have to live life,” he said. “People have to get groceries. Walk their dog. They have classes, jobs.”
The NCAA principles state before college sports resume there should be no national prohibition against them doing so. Schools’ plans must conform to state and local authorities’ plans to resume activities.
There should also be a downward trajectory of COVID-19 and influenza-type cases for 14 days in a community, either in documented cases or as a percentage of positive tests.
Also, hospitals must be able to treat all patients without going into crisis care, and a robust testing regime must be in place for health care workers. Earlier this summer, UI President Scott Green said he believes the university health service is well placed to meet those demands.
Schools must have adequate protective equipment. They also must have procedures for sanitizing high-use facilities; checking temperatures of personnel; testing and isolating people exhibiting symptoms; and prohibiting them from returning to work until cleared by a doctor.
Schools should also have the ability to do contact tracing on any student-athletes or employees who test positive for COVID-19.
At Idaho, university officials had some planning infrastructure in place that has allowed them to quickly address some coronavirus concerns, Walsh said.
“For three or four years, there has been a team in place,” he said. “It meets on an as needed basis.”
It includes school medical officials, athletics department leaders, administrators, facilities and events staff, and Julia McIlroy, director of contracts and purchasing services, who is leading the effort to acquire personal protective equipment, Walsh said.
“Mental health is also a big one,” he said.
As various needs emerge, Walsh can envision the planning group “growing into a 30-person team.”
Idaho is also working closely with the Big Sky Conference, while Walsh and athletics medicine peers around the country are sharing ideas.
For now, it is too soon to speculate in depth about what an average day for a Vandals student-athlete may look like in August. Playing a season is even further down the road and more problematic.
As a practical matter, taping might take place outdoors to enforce distancing, Walsh said. All teams share a weight room and training room, so keeping facilities clean is manageable. If social distancing is key, Walsh thinks the Vandals will comply.
“We’re at the point now where people are taking this seriously,” he said. “If a coach tells them something or I tell them something, they listen. They are pretty good at following the rules.”
One thing he and the other UI trainers have had to do this summer is outsource rehabilitation. With UI closed and most student-athletes at home and out of Moscow, athletes recovering from injuries are working with physical therapists and trainers in their own areas.
“Luckily, we’ve been pretty healthy,” said Walsh, who praised the level of communication between UI trainers and therapists and trainers in other parts of the country dealing with injured Vandals.
Walsh said the crisis has also peeled away other aspects of the status quo and revealed interesting elements underneath. He is inundated with student-athletes’ workout postings that don’t involve a weight room.
The creative routines are mentally rejuvenating for athletes accustomed to more rigid conditioning protocols. The closure of the university has also put a premium on video conferencing, which is causing coaches to rethink ways in which they interact with each other and athletes.
At the end of this challenging summer, UI may reap enduring benefits.
“It is helping us to think outside the box,” Walsh said.
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