Months of wondering what the fall sports schedule in collegiate athletics might look like will boil down to the next few weeks as the NCAA and individuals conferences around the country wait as long as possible to make a decision.
Already, sports fans have seen various leagues move to a conference-only model or suspend fall sports all together. Multiple FCS football conferences have decided not to play a season this fall, while the Big 10 and Pac-12 will no longer play a non-conference slate in 2020.
The American Athletic Conference, and by extension, East Carolina University has not yet made a decision about a possible football season. ECU did lose a non-conference game when the MEAC suspended fall activities, knocking Norfolk State out of a trip to Greenville, North Carolina.
While a decision about football has yet to be made — the AAC did push the start of Olympic sports back to at least Sept. 1 yesterday — many options and scenarios are being discussed.
“I think we’ll know in the next week to 10 days of what a fall will look like,” ECU Athletic Director Jon Gilbert told the Greenville-Pitt County Chamber of Commerce during a Power Luncheon on Wednesday. “My anticipation is it could be a multitude of things. We could play on time, a normal schedule. You could see some sort of delay where all the leagues essentially push back to a hybrid of a conference schedule plus a few non-conference games and then potentially push back even later into the spring. So I think everything is on the table.
“The one thing that I do know for certain, it is not going to be a normal fall. I do anticipate a reduced capacity as it relates to Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. We continue to talk about what that would look like. I think somewhere 50% or less is probably where we’re going to land.”
That timeline means clarity on fall sports could come around Aug. 1, or right about the time ECU football is set to begin formal team practices. When the word does come, it will be from the AAC league office.
One of the biggest factors that officials must consider in a decision is the availability and turnaround time on COVID-19 testing. ECU’s medical staff, much like others across the country, have been testing student-athletes, coaches and staff regularly to make sure the virus is not spreading.
On Wednesday, ECU resumed athletic activities after a spike in cases forced the athletic department to pause on-campus workouts for a week. After testing 104 individuals on Monday and turning up only three positive cases, the Pirates returned to the field and practice gyms.
At the conference level, the AAC has already put into place testing protocols for member schools to follow in-season. That includes testing players and personnel 72 hours before a game to ensure enough turnaround time on administered tests.
“I remain positive that we will find a way to play football this fall but I also know what the realities are and the next couple weeks are going to be really telling with what the fall will look like,” Gilbert said. “I remain encouraged…When I mentioned it’s going to look different at Dowdy-Ficklen, only those individuals that are tested in that 72-hour period would be allowed on the field. The number of people that have access to the field would completely go away.”
Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium looking different on gameday will not only be limited to who has access to the field. ECU’s athletic department is currently working on models for 25-50% capacity limits that could be placed on them by health officials this fall. How that would look and what that would entail remains to be seen as those decisions have yet to be finalized.
“I think a formula or model of where there is limited capacity is where I think we’ll land,” Gilbert said. “So the next two weeks are going to be really telling of where we all collectively do that. A lot of this will start through the conference level. I have weekly conference calls with our commissioner and with the other athletic directors to talk about a multitude of scenarios…
“It’s going to be a different look. No spirit squads on the field, we really would be instituting a bubble to make sure we could continue to play the game and in a safe way knowing that the safety, health and well-being of our student-athletes will be our first measure of guidance as we proceed through this.”
Multiple important decisions will need to be made in the next 10-14 days if plans are to put in place ahead of the upcoming football season. As Gilbert alluded to, just about everything is on the table as athletic departments and conferences everywhere attempt to figure out the best course of action to keep their student-athletes, coaches and staff safe from the COVID-19 virus.
“One of the difficult things during this time period is, it’s really hard to be strategic right now,” Gilbert said. “More often times than not, I feel like we are strategic on our initiatives, we’re able to plan, put that plan in place and follow that plan. With COVID, we’ve been extremely reactionary.”
It feels like only more reactionary measures are coming as the shifting landscape caused by the pandemic seemingly changes everyday.
Listen to Wednesday’s edition of the Patrick Johnson Show for extended comments from Jon Gilbert here.