COVID-19 brings new challenges to college athletics

By: Michael Harvey

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to run rampant throughout the world, not much has had more confusion surrounding it than sports. Sports have been a giant question mark since the beginning of COVID-19 due to the close interaction that most of them bring. Whether it be professional, collegiate or amateur, it has affected them in some form. This year not only saw the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in history, but also the postponement of several professional sports leagues for extended periods of time. As most professional sports leagues have resumed fully or modified their seasons in some way, collegiate sports are on a case-by-case basis where your membership in a certain NCAA conference can make all the difference on whether it is safe to restart.

With the number of cases and infections on the rise daily, it may seem easy to say that we don’t need college sports during this crisis. However, college sports generate a massive amount of revenue for the NCAA and the schools involved with it. According to the NCAA, “The total revenue generated among all NCAA athletics departments in 2018 was $10.3 billion.”

This number is typically generated by the breadwinners of college sports, basketball and football. For the smaller schools, such as Gardner-Webb, that is how we thrive. The sports that probably have it the hardest right now are the limited-revenue and non-revenue sports, such as include golf, swimming and track and field. If some schools were to cancel their breadwinners for the season, we might see the end to some non-revenue programs. When colleges like Stanford University cut eleven varsity sports for an entire academic year, it brings cause for concern. Luckily, at this point Gardner-Webb hasn’t had to make any tough decisions that would cause the elimination of a sport altogether.

The Big South conference has had to make several tough decisions to protect its players and coaches with the announcement in August that it was choosing to delay its fall sports seasons with the intent of playing in the spring. This included men’s and women’s cross-country, football, men’s and women’s soccer, and volleyball. Fall competitions in men and women’s golf and men and women’s tennis, and out of season competitions in spring sports were suspended as well. 

While no sports will be in play, every sport on this campus has had to undergo several changes that help allow them to continue to coexist during the current pandemic, such as less practicing, mandatory screening checks during the week and mandatory quarantines issued upon athletes’ arrival to campus.

Redshirt-Junior Bobby Dales, Jr. suited up in his GWU Football uniform.

Redshirt Junior defensive lineman Bobby Dales, Jr helped explain some protocols that the football team goes through. “The coaching staff is taking COVID-19 seriously, which I appreciate. They are following CDC guidelines and we as players have been instructed to wear our mask everywhere when we attend practice. Whether it be on the field or in the locker room.” Dales, Jr said. “We are also only allowing between 10 to 15 people in the locker room at a time to maintain six feet of space. Along with doing our daily screenings before we go to class, we also have a curfew set up by the coaches. The coaches perform curfew checks every night to makes sure that we aren’t out doing something that could get ourselves or fellow teammates sick. In the end, we are all like a family and you have to try to protect them as much as you can.”

While sports like football have a bit of clarity as they navigate the pandemic, Golf isn’t that lucky. Since returning for the fall semester, the Gardner-Webb Golf team has been uncertain of what their future holds. Following the mandatory quarantine, the golfers were told they could practice. A few days later that came to an abrupt halt as Gardner-Webb had worries about contact-tracing. Now over a month into the semester,  the GWU Golf team has finally begun morning workouts. Even with workouts in progress, with the postponement of tournament play by the Big South and the shaky practice schedule so far makes it uncertain how much COVID-19 will affect the season.

Sophomore golfer Max White believes that the uncertainty has been one of the most difficult things about this pandemic. “I love golf and it bothers me we don’t have more clarity regarding the practice situation.”

Overall, White said his least favorite thing about the COVID-19 guidelines is the wearing of masks. “Masks are definitely not my favorite thing in the world. They are uncomfortable, hard to breathe in and just annoying,” White said. “One day I drove to class and as I was walking in, I realized that I didn’t have a mask. I then had to drive back to my apartment to get one and was almost late for class.”

Sophomore Golfer Max White posing with a golf trophy.

Even though White showed his displeasure with masks, he understands the box that Gardner-Webb was put in this semester. “I don’t blame Gardner-Webb. They were put in a tough box with the pandemic and I know they are trying, but sometimes I question whether it is enough following the update we had on Friday.”

Even though there are several things he dislikes about this new way of life, White believes that being a student athlete during COVID is easier than being a student athlete during a traditional academic year. “There are definitely fewer things to worry about compared to last year. Limited practice and fewer workouts have made this year simple for me so far,” White said.

While all sports continue to battle the issues brought about by COVID-19, the Gardner-Webb swimming team gets to add another wrench into their season. During the summer, a complete overhaul of the Bost Pool began, which is yet to be completed. According to David S. Wacaster, Director of Operations for Facilities & Maintenance, the pool will have a whole new structure around it along with the replacement of the pool heater and pump. The area will also receive new LED lighting, a ventilation system and four new 27-foot infrared deck heaters. The interior will also feature a new graphics package.

Junior Swimmer Christian Jann in action at a GWU Swim meet.

While all that sounds like an improvement for Gardner-Webb swimming, it has been a minor inconvenience for current members of the swim team. Junior swimmer Christian Jann expressed his thoughts on the subject. “Obviously, not having a pool here is annoying because instead of walking 30 seconds from my dorm to the pool, I now have to drive to Shelby and burn some of my gas when I drive back and forth.” Jann said. “At the end of the day it isn’t that big of a hassle given some more serious inconveniences that we’ve had to encounter. It just takes up a little more time in the end.”

Regarding the COVID-19 restrictions, Jann believes they are exactly what the university needs, but he also feels like sometimes they can be tedious. “Prior to COVID-19 we had a little more freedom and weren’t restricted in the people we could see or things we could do, but now with this new normal it definitely makes you miss the freedom that those days offered.”

As we continue to navigate our way through the fall semester and into spring, it will be intriguing to see how these procedures will play out. Hopefully, when springtime rolls around, students, athletes and fans will all be preparing to cheer on their Runnin’ Bulldogs whether they take the field, court, pool or course.

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