Monday, 8 June 2020

Reality Hits Home

After the breaking news yesterday, the announcement made jointly through Canada West, the OUA, the AUS, and U SPORTS still hit me like a ton of bricks when the news was released today at noon in Manitoba. I did point out in yesterday's article that the NCAA was starting to see athletic programs being hit with the coronavirus pandemic, so perhaps getting ahead of this is the prudent thing to do. It's just hard for me to see some of these athletes not competing in knowing how much they love the university sports scene, and I think I feel for them being that a number of seniors at university will be forced to make a tough decision on whether they graduate and move on or return for one final shot at glory at the university level. In the end, the health and well-being of students should never be put in harm's way, so prepare for a very quiet fall semester across this nation.

All six fall semester sports affected by the decision - women's field hockey, men's and women's cross country running, men's and women's soccer, women's rugby, and football - have varying degrees of action confined to close quarters where contact can be made between two or more people. As we've seen in the NCAA, most players have been asymptomatic thus far, so there could be situations where an athlete may contract COVID-19 and unknowingly pass it on through a daily interaction just as the NHL teams did in San Jose when both the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche players were affected.

We should note, though, that U SPORTS said in their release yesterday that there are factors out of their control, stating, "[t]he decision comes as a result of the on-going uncertainties with student-athlete health and safety, travel and public health restrictions that affect parts of the country and different curriculum delivery models being proposed on the campus of its 56 member universities."

This is entirely reasonable when one factors in that travel to other campuses almost always involve an airplane at some point out west, and all of Canada West flies commercial flights with other passengers from various walks of life. As we know, airlines have restricted or cancelled their regular scheduling of flights due to a reduction in travelers, and the results have been fairly cramped planes for those that do get off the ground. With students needing to be in class or returning home to take online classes, they could be putting family at risk if they are asymptomatic after playing or flying, and this is why making athletes compete before the public health organizations have a handle on this virus is a bad idea: the risks still outweigh the benefits at this time.

The other thing that really stands out from this decision is the economics of the move. We know that universities are planning for a lot of online learning for the fall semester with the possibilities of food services, dormitories, and other vital student services remaining closed with the ongoing pandemic crisis. With schools looking to reduce budgets through these steps, that would also include athletics as travel, equipment, facilities, and everything else involved in running high-quality sports programs add up quickly.

Those two primary factors - the health of students and the economic impact on universities - actually make this decision today very easy to understand objectively, but it's hard to sit here and type objectively when I play a role in university sports and love every second I'm at the rink. My weekends through to January 1, 2021 suddenly got a lot less busy, and that makes me sad when it comes to watching the best women at the university level play hockey every weekend.

For athletes, there's two sides to this coin as there will have to be decisions made. As per U SPORTS, the only athletes who won't use a year of eligibility assuming that sports return to university campuses are those whose championships were cancelled in 2020-21. Those six sports listed above? They're part of that ruling, so all the senior students in those sports now have a very big question to answer on whether they graduate and move on or come back for one more year of action in what could be their final, high-level games of their careers.

For football players, we know a number of players are scouted by both CFL and NFL teams in U SPORTS, so it's almost better for all those senior players to return if they truly believe they have a shot at playing pro football. If that happens, what happens to roster sizes? What about the incoming recruits in terms of playing versus red-shirting? The ripple in the water that was caused by cancelling sports will continue to extend outward as coaches will be forced to reckon with all sorts of problems they've never faced, so there may be more announcements in the coming weeks on how U SPORTS and its member schools will mitigate these issues.

While I understand the gravity as to how this decision was reached, I cannot lie: it sucks. It sucks for athletes who want to play. It sucks for coaches who want to coach. It sucks for fans, parents, and family who want to watch their kids, nephews, nieces, and grandkids, and favorite teams excel both on in their chosen sports and in their fields of study. It sucks for broadcasters who have a unique connection to these athletes by calling the action and telling their stories. It sucks for athletic departments who face a whole new myriad of problems to manage when it comes to eligibility, scholarships, and the effects on both. It sucks for universities who use their athletic programs to attract students to their schools. And it sucks for the organizing bodies of U SPORTS who work with the schools for marketing, promotion, student questions, and more.

The reality of the situation is that, yes, this decision entirely sucks as I made clear one paragraph above, but you know what else would suck? Shutting down a sport mid-season because a team has players who tested positive for coronavirus. If we're truly being honest about how we feel, we can't ask students to put their health at risk for our entertainment no matter how much that decision sucks.

The new recruits and the current athletes who play for your favorite university's teams are students first. If we're fine with students participating in online classes for safety, the "athlete" part doesn't get to dictate when we put that safety at risk. We can whine and cry and moan about how this is a terrible decision, but the student-athletes - emphasis on STUDENT - aren't at the schools to entertain us. They're getting an education first, and sports is a benefit of those education opportunities.

Yes, it sucks not having university sports, and I am affected directly by this. However, we've been told time and time again that this COVID-19 pandemic will result in us having to accept that there will be a "new normal". This is that new reality hitting home, folks. We just need to get used to it now.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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