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NCAA finally sets coronavirus guidelines for fall sports

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After months of inaction, punting decisions down the calendar, the NCAA finally began to take action on Wednesday, and hours after doing so, Division III fall championships were canceled across the board.

College sports’ governing body gave an end date for the status of the fall athletic season: Aug. 21. By that day, it said, each division has to determine the status of fall championships, its board of governors announced on Wednesday after its meeting on Tuesday. The Division III Presidents Council didn’t have to wait that long, citing health and safety amid the novel coronavirus pandemic as the reason for calling off fall championships. This doesn’t preclude teams or conferences from playing in the fall, but there will be no NCAA Division III Tournaments in any sport.

The NCAA set forth requirements that must be met to ensure safety during the pandemic and protect players who don’t want to put their health at risk. The Division I board of directors has put the fate of Division I fall championships in the hands of the Division I Council — it is comprised mostly of athletic directors and a few conference commissioners — which will meet next week, the NCAA announced. Of course, it must be noted, the NCAA does not control the status of big-time college football, since it does not run the College Football Playoff or bowl system.

“Our decisions place emphasis where it belongs — on the health and safety of college athletes,” NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. “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.”

For fall sports to be held during the preseason, regular season and postseason, all divisions must follow the governing body’s return-to-sport guidelines – that includes frequent testing, social distancing and mask wearing — as well as federal, state and local guidelines to the virus and allow student-athletes to opt out of competing if they are concerned about COVID-19 without concern about their scholarships being honored.

Mark Emmert
NCAA president Mark EmmertGetty Images

So far, a number of Division II and III conferences have postponed or canceled fall sports. The Division I Ivy League, MEAC, SWAC, Northeast and Patriot League have as well. The CAA has postponed football and on Wednesday, UConn, an independent program, became the first FBS school to cancel football.

“What it does is put it all back on the conferences,” a high-major athletic director, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Post. “My general response is that inevitably fall sports are going to be canceled. Today was about reiterating the standards of what it’s going to take to play fall sports. That’s why you’ve seen conferences pulling out along the way. It puts it back on conferences to evaluate, ‘can we do that?’ Every conference has to figure it out for themselves.”

If 50 percent or more eligible teams in a sport in a division cancel their fall season, the division cannot have a championship in that specific sport. Athletes, the board wrote, cannot be forced to waive legal rights as a condition of competing, like waivers certain schools have been implementing, and schools have to cover medical expenses related to the virus. Additionally, the NCAA is going to create a hotline, a phone number and email, that will allow athletes, parents and others to report failures from coaches or administrators. This comes on the heels of a report in the Coloradoan that football coaches at Colorado State have told players not to report symptoms of the virus, have threatened players with reduced playing time if they quarantine and claim the school is altering contact tracing reports to ensure players keep practicing.

“The first and most important consideration is whether sports can be conducted safely for college athletes,” Michael Drake, the board of governors’ chair and University of California system president, said in the letter. “Each division must examine whether it has the resources available to take the required precautions given the spread of COVID-19.”

In the letter, the board of governors said they won’t only support fall championships and other postseason play “if strict conditions are applied and adhered to.” The NCAA came up with these requirements based on suggestions from its COVID-19 Advisory Panel. That group was created in March and is made up of medical, public health and epidemiology experts. While Aug. 21 is the date for decisions to be made about fall sports, the NCAA listed Aug. 14 as the day when student-athletes and their families have to be made aware of what their respective schools will be doing eligibility-wise for those who plan to opt out, or their seasons are canceled or cut short due to the virus.

“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.”

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