After an NCAA Board of Governors meeting Tuesday, the NCAA announced Wednesday it would allow each division to choose its path forward amid the coronavirus pandemic as long as it followed certain health and safety protocols.
The NCAA Board of Governors would only support fall championships, which are sanctioned by the college athletics governing body, if specific guidelines were met to fight the spread of the coronavirus. The NCAA also says local and state health rules must be met.
The NCAA also set an Aug. 21 deadline for divisions to determine if championships will go forward.
If they are postponed, the decision to conduct those events at the later date must be based on COVID-19 data available at the time.
Shortly after the announcement, the Division III Presidents Council canceled its fall championships “due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related administrative and financial challenges,” with Division II following suit a few hours later.
That leaves Division I championships, including the FCS playoffs, as the last remaining postseasons for the NCAA.
The Big Sky Conference had been targeting the end of July to make a decision about the fall. But then it waited until this week to find out what the NCAA Board of Governors had decided. Now, Big Sky leaders are scheduled to meet Thursday.
After the NCAA’s announcement Wednesday, the Division I Board of Directors, which mostly consists of school presidents, asked the Division I Council, mostly comprised of athletic directors and conference commissioners, to provide recommendations for fall sports.
Both groups have several representatives from FCS conferences. The Division I Council, which meets next week, has two members from the Big Sky: Montana senior associate athletic director Jean Gee and Northern Colorado linebacker Justice Littrell.
These timelines are being established while most Big Sky football teams, including Idaho State, are preparing to begin fall football practices Friday.
The NCAA also indicated if 50% or more of eligible teams in a particular sport call off their fall seasons, no championship will happen in that division. Craig Haley of Athlon Sports reported that, among the 127 teams in the FCS, 111 are eligible for the postseason in a normal year and about 70 have not yet canceled sports.
These championships may also utilize reduced bracketing, less competitors, predetermined sites and single sites. The FCS playoffs currently consist of 24 teams and are hosted by higher seeds until the national championship game, which takes place in Frisco, Texas.
The Big Sky is made up of 13 teams in eight different states, but some may not be allowed to play based on local health protocols. Big Sky commissioner Tom Wistrcill has also said in-person instruction would be a prerequisite for competition, which is not expected to be the case for multiple schools in the conference.
Wistrcill declined a request for comment for this story.
In its Wednesday announcement, the NCAA required programs to follow its recently released guidelines for returning to play. They include coronavirus testing and results within 72 hours of competition in high-contact risk sports.
“The first and most important consideration is whether sports can be conducted safely for college athletes,” Michael V. Drake, chair of the Board of Governors and University of California system president, said in the NCAA’s press release. “Each division must examine whether it has the resources available to take the required precautions given the spread of COVID-19.”
The NCAA added postseason contests “must” be conducted with enhanced safety protocols including regular testing, separation of athletes and essential personnel from nonessential personnel, and physical distancing and masking policies during all aspects of noncompetition.
NCAA guidelines also point out time-based strategies for athletes resuming activities after positive test results should follow CDC recommendations and all people involved who may have high-risk exposure to the coronavirus should be quarantined for 14 days.
The guidelines also say athletes and athletics personnel “should understand” that coronavirus mitigation practices should be followed including when away from team-related activities. However, Wistrcill has noted how difficult that is to enforce with college students.
“The challenge becomes, again, when those 18 to 22-year-olds, and I don’t blame them, when it’s 7 o’clock at night, you want to do something. You want to grab a bite to eat,” Wistrcill said last month. “That’s just natural. It’s a double-edged sword there of how do you protect them and help them protect themselves from the virus while also allowing them to be 18 to 22-year-olds.
“And hopefully they make smart decisions … but that’s hard. That’s a challenge that we have in the system, no doubt.”
Schools also cannot require athletes to waive legal rights regarding COVID-19,and must cover coronavirus-related medical expenses for athletes.
Programs must also allow athletes to opt out of their respective sports due to coronavirus concerns, and in that instance, the schools must honor the scholarship commitment for that athlete. By Aug. 14, each division must lay out eligibility accommodations for athletes who opt out this fall or for those whose seasons are canceled or cut short.
“Our decisions place emphasis where it belongs — on the health and safety of college athletes,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in Wednesday’s press release. “Student-athletes should never feel pressured into playing their sport if they do not believe it is safe to do so. These policies ensure they can make thoughtful, informed decisions about playing this fall.”
The NCAA will also open a phone and email hotline to allow athletes, families or others involved to report any infractions of health guidelines. The NCAA then will notify school and conference administrators, who will be expected to act accordingly.
These requirements were created based on guidance from the NCAA’s COVID-19 Advisory Panel made up of medical, public health and epidemiology experts, which will continue to monitor the pandemic and could recommend changes to the requirements.
Emmert said each division is facing unique circumstances because of resources available to each program.
“First and foremost, we need to make sure we provide a safe environment for college athletes to compete for an opportunity to play in NCAA championships,” Emmert said. “A decision based on the realities in each division will provide clarity for conferences and campuses as they determine how to safely begin the academic year and the return to sports.”