A university and its athletics department are supposed to help put student athletes in a position to succeed on and off the court. However, the COVID-19 shutdowns and NCAA rulings thereafter are putting schools in position to fail.
“I feel there’s a little bit of a rush to decide certain things,” Long Beach State athletic director Andy Fee said. “What I see from my athletic director chair is that we’re starting to build a model that’s going to cave in on itself.”
Last month, the NCAA granted another year of eligibility for the 2020 fall athletes like it did for the spring participants. That only complicates budgets and roster sizes as LBSU starts bringing student athletes back to the dormitories.
“This is real and we need to show the university and local public health officials that we’re committed, we have a plan in place and we’re executing it,” Fee said of keeping the campus free of COVID-19. “We can’t create the NBA bubble, but we want to create pods and keep people in groups so we can all feel comfortable.”
LBSU basketball players are the focus of restarting athletic activities on campus because the Nov. 10 start of basketball season is the only piece of the 2020 NCAA schedule left. Fee said the student athletes will need to do their part in order to start something as simple as a team practice.
“They’re on the same floor, in the same area and interacting in the same groups,” Fee said. “I told them that fair or unfair, the amount of activity we can do this fall, and hopefully this spring, is really going to be dependent upon their behavior. The university and public health officials are not going to be okay if we have outbreaks and clusters of cases.”
There isn’t consistent testing available to find out if the plan is working, and any conversation Fee has had about restarting inevitably ends in a conversation about testing.
Fee added that the NCAA is considering delaying the basketball season until Thanksgiving to allow schools time to procure a testing procedure. Obviously, that creates its own set of issues when you consider traveling to away games.
“We have guaranteed games like at Arizona and they write us a check for $90,000 to go play there,” Fee said. “Do I need to ask the University of Arizona to get into their medical center to take COIVD tests when we get to town? Am I looking on the internet to find the county testing site? If we test in Los Angeles and we hop on a plane, does it have to be 72 hours from that until game time? It’s the practical minutia we have to figure out. I find it hard to believe we can start Nov. 10. As an athletic director, what I have to solve is going to require a lot more work and thought. My mindset is on playing in a January to June window.”
None of the NCAA student athletes are allowed to use the facilities on campus, and Fee said it will be at least two weeks until anything changes.
With eligibility relief leaving more student athletes enrolled than ever in its wake, the catastrophic changes to the LBSU budget also have Fee concerned for the future.
The NCAA ruled that no student athlete can lose scholarship or financial aid if they choose not to play because of COVID-19 concerns. That has untenable costs stacking up for LBSU and other mid-major universities. Even Stanford had to discontinue its men’s volleyball program because of financial stress.
“We don’t have the financial capacity to just keep handing scholarships out,” Fee said. “I understand and support the premise (of eligibility relief). My heart is 100% behind the concept. But the reality is we can’t be everything to everybody given our resources.”
Currently the LBSU Dirtbags baseball roster has 54 players on it, and that’s almost 20 more than the NCAA previously had allowed for one team.
“It’s not just our student-athletes, who of course we want to take care of the best we can, but we do have future student athletes who are going to come to Long Beach State,” Fee said. “How do we provide them an opportunity?”
Fee believes the NCAA ruling on eligibility relief is a bit premature.
“They’re trying to set up these calendars, especially around NCAA Championships, but why do we have to make that decision now?” Fee questioned. “There’s a lot that can play out. We all have to be realistic and manage expectations because in the COVID world, we can’t guarantee things at all.”
The pandemic has also caused LBSU to lay off some of its staff, and it’s not the only department that’s being forced to tighten the financial belt.
“We’re looking to reduce expenses everywhere that we can,” Fee said. “Obviously we don’t have fat so it’s not like we can get rid of the charter flights. We’ve gone through some operational and staffing changes, so we’re doing what we can. We’re not alone, and that doesn’t make it necessarily easier, but it puts it into perspective.”
The prospect of having all its sports in action at one time in the January-June window is also a daunting prospect for LBSU and its shrinking staff.
“We need to really start thinking about how much we can host,” Fee said. “Do you have to modify those seasons? Are you doing ticket taking on the honor system? Are there enough officials? Who knows? There’s just a lot of practical moving parts, and that’s what I’m concerned about. I just want to make sure that we get as much competition and practices as we can. But we also need to be realistic about what’s practical.”
Fee concluded that the NCAA will likely make a decision about the spring sports schedule by the end of October. A decision about basketball season will come sooner.