(AP) — In one part of the country, LSU coach Ed Orgeron smiles and mentions a “light at the end of the tunnel” as he discusses his assistants’ recent return to work at football headquarters, and university plans to welcome players back to campus as early as June 1.
Some 1,000 miles north at Akron, women’s tennis players, along with men’s cross-country runners and golfers, learned their teams were being disbanded and that their college sports careers would end if if they can’t find an opportunity to transfer.
Divergent headlines ranging from hopeful to grim are a reality for college sports amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While all college athletic programs could see revenues drop because of restrictions on gatherings in response to the coronvirus outbreak, optimism is higher in power conferences like the SEC, where resources for college sports have historically been more plentiful.
“We’re doing things a little differently but we’re doing them, in my opinion, the best — the model of what the SEC and the nation should be doing,” LSU athletic director Scott Woodward said during an online event for football boosters Wednesday night. “We have really top concern for our student athletes – their safety and welfare ... and both in their academics and their physical pursuits.”
Woodward cautioned that plans could change. He said LSU was preparing to welcome back returning players with the Tigers’ 2019 national championship football team, as well as other athletes, after an SEC-mandated closure of athletic facilities to students is slated to end May 31.
This is the plan even though LSU will only offer summer classes online and does not have plans to reopen its campus to the general student population at least until the fall semester.
Woodward also suggested that with LSU’s carefully considered and “strict” social distancing and sanitizing protocols, student-athletes could be safer training and eating under direct supervision of coaches, trainers and nutritionists than on their own at home.
By quarantining at LSU, Woodward contends, athletes would be exposed to fewer members of the public, while the school would be “making sure their food is done together, making sure that the weight rooms are clean and immaculate.”
Colorado State football coach Steve Addazio called LSU’s effort “tremendous.”
“The ability to get in and use the facilities, once the individual states have cleared that and opening protocols ... I’m all for it,” Addazio said during a conference call Thursday. “I have nothing against local gyms. I think they’re great. In the same breath, I’d like our kids to be in our gym. I know what the protocols are for cleanliness, and how many people can be in one place at one time ... and I’d feel much greater about that. I’m excited for that. I think that’s the right thing to do.”
Florida AD Scott Strickland said his administration is working to bring back student-athletes, and in the meantime, would welcome professional sports franchises wanting train on campus following Florida Gov. DeSantis’ decision Wednesday to invite pro teams to operate in the state.
“We have been receiving excellent guidance from our state and health care officials, and when those groups believe it is safe to host college and pro sporting events in Florida, we will be prepared to do so,” Strickland said.
ACC Commissioner John Swofford said bringing athletes back to campus before regular students is “not that out of the ordinary.”
Football fall camp starts before classes do.
“I don’t think we’d be bringing any student-athletes back probably without an anticipation and an expectation that the institution was going to be opening, however that institution defines opening,” Swofford said. “You can’t just open the door and everybody’s ready to go back to campus and move into training camp and spend six weeks or so preparing for an opening game overnight. You’ve got to have some lead-in time to logistically make all of that work.”
By contrast, Akron AD Larry Williams spoke of making decisions that “are very difficult but they are important and necessary” after learning Akron plans to reduce financial support to the athletic department by approximately 23% ($4.4 million).
“This action aligns us with our Mid-American Conference peers in the total number of sports and is part of the ongoing effort to redesign the university to ensure that UA continues to invest in high-demand, high-quality academic programs,” Williams said.
“This is a difficult day for all of us,” Williams continued. “We have dedicated student-athletes, coaches and athletics staff who have embraced being a Zip and make tremendous contributions to campus life in class, in competition and in our greater community.”
The loss of the three sports at Akron affects 23 male and nine female student-athletes, three coaches and one graduate assistant. The school will now have 17 sports: seven men’s, 10 women’s. The Zips will remain in the MAC, which earlier this week announced it is eliminating postseason tournaments in eight sports, including baseball and softball, and scaling back its postseason basketball tournaments.
The Atlantic 10 and Southern Conference announced Thursday similar cuts to several postseason championships, though not basketball, and alterations to regular-season schedules aimed at reducing travel and other costs.
Williams said the timing of Akron’s announcement was made to allow student-athletes time to find new schools if they want to continue in their sports.
It remains unclear if fall sports will start on time.
Woodward said the Tigers would continue to operate under the assumption their football schedule would begin Labor Day weekend, but could not say whether fans would be permitted in stadiums.
“Probably middle of the summer sometime we’re going to have to zig or zag and decide what we want to do” about fan attendance, Woodward said. “We’re going to have to do this in a proper and a smart way.”