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Fall athletics: Short-term pain is worth the long-term gain

As the coronavirus pandemic worsens across the United States, with Florida becoming the new global epicenter of the virus as of July 8, I question why universities across the country are so focused on getting their fall student athletes back on the field. The entire collegiate athletics system relies on shared spaces like locker and weight rooms; physical contact between student athletes, coaches and trainers; and travel across states and countries — all activities that directly defy the Center for Disease Control guidelines. These factors, compounded by the high risk of a coronavirus outbreak, leaves me wondering: Why are universities so intent on fall sports happening?

For sports that have already started preseason workouts, primarily football, the risk of an outbreak has already come to fruition. The University of North Carolina football team suspended their voluntary workouts on July 8 due to 37 players and staff testing positive for COVID-19 and the University of Maryland also suspended their voluntary football workouts on July 11 after nine players tested positive.

These outbreaks are just from teams working out amongst themselves, not taking into account teams having to travel and come into contact with other players and staff during the regular season. So if universities are already struggling to control COVID-19 outbreaks amongst their own players, imagine how difficult it’s going to be once the fall athletics season begins.

While some conferences have interesting solutions to the travel and contact between players — such as the Big 10, which includes UMD, stating it would only play conference matches — any contact poses a large risk of causing an outbreak.

UMBC’s Athletic Department presented its own return-to-play-plan to student athletes on June 22. And while most of the plan still seems up in the air, Associate Athletic Director of Sports Medicine Stacy Carone explained that the reintroduction of teams would start in groups of 10 or less (including coaches) and take at least four weeks from the team’s return date.

As a cross country runner, that four week reintroduction period cuts about two of the six meets I run within the season, equating to two less opportunities for me to get back into racing shape before our conference championship at the end of October and regional meet in early November. That is, if we make it that far into the season, and is something UMBC Athletic Director Brian Barrio seemed unsure of in the Athletic Department’s return-to-play presentation.

If UMBC Athletic Department leadership cannot guarantee that we will have conference championships, which for most teams is the final and biggest game of the season, what is the point of any smaller games that are used to prepare teams for conferences? If other universities have already tried to reintroduce teams and have seen outbreaks, why are we trying to do the same thing and expecting a different result?

With so much focus on how to ensure that fall sports happen, I worry that the National Collegiate Athletic Association and university athletic departments aren’t thinking about how winter sports, which are all hosted in indoor facilities, are going to work.

I would much rather sacrifice my fall season to ensure that winter sports happen. The NCAA needs to host its men’s basketball tournament this year, and the organization cannot afford to lose over $900 million normally made as a result of the tournament two years in a row. Without that revenue, collegiate athletic budgets are only going to continue to shrink, hurting student athletes more in the long run than a missed season would.