Living in a pandemic has presented us all with many challenges. We have been forced to adjust to new ways of going about everyday life. From school, to work, to our social lives, we have had to adapt to a new normal. This is true of the sports world as well. Athletes, coaches, and administrators are all having to navigate their way through uncharted territory. The idea of sports may seem trivial to some at a time like this, but for others, sports are a way of life, an outlet, a way to connect, or a means to an education. Sporting events can also be a major source of revenue for a university. As Covid-19 continues to be a major concern in our country, plans can completely change from one day to the next. But administrators continue to work toward ways to return to competition while prioritizing student athlete safety and minimizing risk. So, what does this all mean for the future of college sports and particularly the UMSL Athletic Department and its student athletes?
The financial burden of this pandemic has greatly affected universities all over the country. As a result of declining enrollment and revenue loss, many colleges are having to make difficult decisions involving budget cuts, which includes athletic programs. Dozens of schools nationwide, from Division 1 schools all the way down to junior colleges, have decided to cut various athletic programs. Stanford will be eliminating 11 sports teams after the 2020-2021 season. It is expected that more schools will follow suit, but according to UMSL Athletic Director Lori Flanagan, UMSL will not be one of them. In an interview with the Athletic Director earlier this week she stated that “there are currently 235 student athletes at UMSL and the value of having these students enrolled at school outweighs the value of any potential money saved from program cuts.”
UMSL has not been immune, however, to the financial impact of the Coronavirus. Like most schools around the country, UMSL has seen schoolwide budget cuts, including a reduced budget for the athletic department. In addition to a reduction of funding from the state, the athletic department has also lost another source of revenue from outside rentals. In the past, UMSL has been able to generate money by renting out the swimming pool and the gym for graduation ceremonies and other events. In prioritizing the safety and health of student athletes and staff, access to the athletic building has been restricted and these events and rentals will not be taking place this year. The athletic department will be able to save money on expenses for travel, lodging, uniforms, and equipment for seasons that were cancelled by the NCAA. There are many schools around the country whose athletic departments are being devastated by the financial impact of the pandemic, especially the schools that rely so heavily on the revenue that their football and basketball teams generate to essentially fund the budget of their entire athletic departments. But UMSL seems to be weathering the storm without having to resort to such drastic measures as eliminating any of the sports they currently sponsor.
While the school presidents, athletic directors, and administrators deal with the logistics of getting the athletes back into competition, the athletes themselves are dealing with an unprecedented set of challenges as well. On March 12th, it became evident that Covid-19 was not going away, and the NCAA and President Mark Emmert announced the cancellation of the remaining winter and spring sports seasons, including the biggest event of the year, the NCAA Tournament. This happened a day after the NBA suspended their season and the same day that the MLB and NHL halted all operations. For spring athletes, seniors in particular, this news put them in a peculiar situation with some difficult decisions to be made. Unprecedented times call for unprecedented actions, and the NCAA did just that in approving an extra year of eligibility for all student athletes that had their seasons canceled. To accommodate the teams who have seniors returning for a fifth season while a new freshmen class rolls in, the NCAA has agreed to expand rosters as well as give universities the option to offer additional scholarships to their student athletes. This is where things get tricky. With the NCAA giving universities flexibility regarding scholarships, senior scholarship athletes are not guaranteed to receive the same amount of aid if they return for a fifth year, and could even see their scholarship reduced to nothing depending on the discretion of the university. The NCAA has granted schools this option, not offered any aid. Universities who have already seen reductions in their athletic budgets likely won’t be able to offer additional scholarships at their own expense. This will leave seniors with a very difficult decision, especially those that have completed their degree, whether they can afford another year’s tuition for a chance at one final year of the sport they love. The decision is made even more complicated by the fact that there is still so much about this pandemic that is up in the air. We certainly hope for the best, but there is no guarantee that spring sports will happen in 2021.
When speaking with Athletic Director Lori Flanagan she predicts that a vast majority of UMSL’s seniors will elect to forgo the 5th year option. Having already graduated, with jobs lined up, and still so much uncertainty about the immediate future of sports, the decision becomes extremely complicated. Having played baseball at UMSL from 2011-2013, I can certainly empathize with the current student athletes and the decisions they are being forced to make. It’s hard to imagine having to make the decision to walk away from a sport that I had dedicated most of my life to, without getting to end it on my own terms. Having my senior season abruptly ended by something as out of my control as this pandemic would have left me seriously considering doing everything I could to come back and finish my athletic career on the field, competing. But every student’s situation is different, and each student athlete must do what is best for themselves, even if it means not getting to finish out their athletic career the way they had hoped to.
Over the last six weeks or so, we have seen professional sports return to action. With strict protocols and frequent testing, the major sports leagues have managed to avoid any outbreaks of the virus, with the exceptions being the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins. The NBA is playing in a “bubble” which requires a quarantine period and multiple negative Covid-19 tests to enter, and they have not seen a positive test since their return to play. These types of conditions are not realistic at the college level. Soccer, basketball, swimming, and volleyball seasons have all been postponed this fall and will hope to reassess the pandemic situation in the future and be able to salvage some sort of season for their programs. Golf and cross country, classified by the NCAA as minimal-risk, minimal-contact sports, are the two sports that will be allowed to go on as planned this fall.
UMSL’s fall semester began on August 24th, which means the return of student athletes to campus. With the exception of a handful of students who haven’t been able to return to the United States from their native Brazil, due to travel restrictions, all of the student athletes are back on campus. This also means living together, practicing together, and interacting with each other. The students were given a three-week period to reacclimate to campus life before sports activity resumed on September 14th. Despite the postponement of almost all fall competition at this point, sports will continue to practice in hopes that some of the season can be salvaged somewhere down the line. While it isn’t realistic to create conditions that mimic the NBA’s “bubble,” the university is taking many precautions to help ensure the safety and health of their students. All student athletes are required to test negative for Covid-19 before beginning any practice or training with their respective teams. Any students who test positive at any point are referred to student health and required to go through a quarantine period before returning to campus. Face masks and social distancing are required on campus, and access will be restricted in the athletic building to guests this semester. All students, not just student athletes are required to complete an online Covid-19 training course before returning to campus as well.
As the pandemic continues, we search for ways to regain some level of normalcy in our lives, and for many of us, that means sports. Safety and health are of main concern, and experts and administrators continue to look for ways to return to competition while minimizing risk. There is still so much unknown about the future of this pandemic and the immediate future of college sports. It is impossible to predict what will happen next when navigating the unprecedented and ever-changing landscape that is Covid-19, but UMSL seems to be prepared to get through this hardship. The UMSL Athletic Department and its student athletes will continue to move forward and weather this storm , with hope that soon they will be able to return to doing what they love.