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College Sports Struggle To Adapt As COVID-19 Changes Everything

Empty college sports stadium

With the coronavirus pandemic upending the normal rules, will there even be a collegiate sports season this year?

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the California Collegiate Athletic Association — a 12-member league which includes Humboldt State University — recently announced the cancellation of college sports for the coming year.

But just across the border, in Southern Oregon, schools are busy making plans for sports to resume in early September. The school year for college athletes typically begins in summer as they prepare for fall competitions, so Oregon colleges have also been given permission to begin on-field practices even earlier in mid-August.

But a range of pandemic-related uncertainties and possible pitfalls are keeping collegiate athletic directors on their toes. Matt Sayre, the athletic director at Southern Oregon University, says the necessary social distancing measures will be a distinct challenge, partly because they'ill differ according to the sport.

"We feel ok about the outdoor sports," he says. "We would be able to easily limit the number of people who would come to watch ... The indoor sports are more of a concern to us right now. We’re really looking at, ok, do we disinfect bleachers, do we disinfect chairs? Having people indoors makes us nervous, quite frankly."

Even after those concerns are settled, Sayre says the scheduling of games will remain a question because not all colleges in the Oregon system have decided whether they’ll have fall sports.

Challenges aside, Sayre says, "Number one is the safety of our student athletes, participants, and coaches. The second thing is, if we do have a season, we want it to be a rewarding season for our student athletes."

John VanDyke is the athletic director of Oregon Institute of Technology, in Klamath Falls. He also says safety measures will be a challenge, especially because guidance is coming from multiple sources.

"There's a variety of standards that we have to meet. NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) will come out with rules. Then... what is Oregon Tech allowing, what is our county allowing, what is the state allowing. We have to make sure that, whatever the strictest standard is, that we're adhering to those."

VanDyke says an uptick in COVID cases, or an outbreak among athletes, are just a couple of the potential developments that could change the outlook for college sports at any time.

Assuming state governmental or health agencies don’t change their policy on college sports, there will be college sports in Oregon in the fall. There will likely be far fewer tickets offered for those games, but if you can find some, and you're willing to play by the pandemic spectator rules, some of those games will start September 5th.

But stay tuned; this will remain a fluid situation.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly stated that the California University system had suspended sports for the 2020 season. In fact, the California Collegiate Athletic Association has called off NCAA Division II games for its 12 members, including Humboldt State University. But other collegiate leagues in California do plan to proceed with sports competitions this year.

Dave has worked in broadcasting for over 30 years as an on-air host, producer, writer, and recording engineer. He now oversees news hosts at JPR and also manages radio operations.