Saint Francis athletic director Mike McCaffrey was in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, on March 11 to watch the Cougars' men's basketball team compete in the NAIA National Championship tournament. While he was there, the NAIA canceled the tournament because of the growing coronavirus pandemic and Saint Francis athletes have not been able to compete since.
In recent months, McCaffrey and other NAIA athletic directors have been racing to put in place the safety measures necessary to allow their teams to get back on the field as scheduled in the fall. With time running out before the start of practice Aug. 15 and the start of competition Sept. 5, and the pandemic not yet under control, it's unclear whether these preparations will be enough, but athletic departments are making every effort.
“We've been on board from Day One with putting things in place so we can play,” McCaffrey said of his staff. “We're going to prepare for every opportunity to do that ... doing all of these things we can to reduce the amount of time we're together in small spaces. We're all adjusting and we're all doing what we have to do.”
NAIA schools in northeast Indiana include Saint Francis, Indiana Tech, Huntington and Grace. Lancers athletic director Chad Briscoe said he feels that he would not be doing right by the players in Grace's programs if the athletic department and the NAIA didn't explore every avenue that could make competition work safely.
“We owe it to our student-athletes to do everything we can to try to make it happen,” Briscoe said. “Even if things were to unfold and we get into this and there have to be changes made or modifications made, move things to the spring, then so be it. But, again, trying to do everything we can to make things as normal as possible.”
The NAIA has put together a set of safety requirements that will be uniform across the country for the fall. Those include screening each athlete and coach no more than six hours before each game and withholding anyone who has a temperature above 100.4 degrees from competition, as well as testing everyone for the virus no more than seven days before the first competition for that program.
Individual schools and conferences are putting in place their own rules on top of those provided by the NAIA for an extra layer of protection. Briscoe said the goal is to do all of the necessary screening procedures on Grace's own campus, before teams travel anywhere for road games.
The Lancers are working to ensure testing is provided for all of their athletes through a partnership with Lutheran Health Network. Testing will be a requirement for athletes, much like a physical in a normal year, and those who do not have health insurance or whose insurance does not cover COVID-19 testing will receive assistance from the athletic department, Briscoe said.
In the likely event that someone eventually tests positive, Grace has set up on-campus and off-campus locations where not just athletes but anyone from the student body can quarantine until they receive a negative COVID-19 test. By NAIA rule, athletes are not allowed to return to competition until they test negative.
For his part, Briscoe said he believes there will be fall sports in 2020. He praised the Crossroads League's handling of logistics and the safety measures the league and the NAIA have put in place that in theory make it possible to push forward safely with athletics in the fall.
Some NAIA conferences in states with serious outbreaks – the Cascade Collegiate Conference in the Pacific Northwest and the Red River Athletic Conference in the South, neither of which sponsor football championships – have postponed traditional fall sports until the spring. The Crossroads League, however, is compact geographically, lowering the risk posed by long road trips, and is made up of schools from states (Michigan, Indiana and Ohio) that have contained the virus relatively well so far.
“Can things change?” Briscoe said. “As people say, the bottom could drop out, the numbers could go up. (Indiana) Gov. (Eric) Holcomb just put in place the mandating of masks starting Monday, so trying to work through all of that, but I feel like we've done a great job of trying to set our athletes and our schools in the Crossroads League up for success this fall.
“For us, we're just trying to do the best that we can with the information that we have.”
Saint Francis has been debating within its athletic department whether to do even more testing for the virus than the NAIA requires. Financing an aggressive testing regimen is a pressing concern, as McCaffrey estimated that it will cost between $25,000 and $30,000 per round of testing. He added that he'd like to do as much testing as necessary to eliminate any risk, but it's unclear how much the Cougars' athletic department will able to afford.
Unlike Grace, Saint Francis is still searching for a testing partner. The Cougars are considering several options and trying to ensure that results will be returned quickly.
“A lot of people can promise you a quick turnaround and all these things in July, but when the rubber hits the road in September, I don't want to be locked into somebody who all of a sudden got hit with a whole bunch of tests they have to do with somebody else,” McCaffrey said.
The Cougars, like the Lancers, have also set aside on-campus apartments for students, including athletes, who test positive for the virus. There are enough individual apartments to hold about 10 students and those who contract the virus will also be given the option of returning home if they live close by.
Despite all of these precautions, McCaffrey is more skeptical than Briscoe that a fall sports schedule will happen now.
“There's so much information right now that is just all over the place that is hard to digest and say, 'Okay, what is the one number I'm going to look at that makes me feel good that we're heading in the right direction?' ” the Saint Francis athletic director said. “Nothing I feel right now feels like we're heading in the right direction.”
“A month ago, I was pumped, I was excited,” he added. “A couple weeks ago, I was optimistic and now I'm in this place where I'm crossing my fingers and hoping something positive happens in the next week or two that gives us a good opportunity to compete this fall in something.”