LOGAN — When news broke Monday evening that the Mountain West Conference had postponed its fall college football season — as well as all other fall sports — over COVID-19 concerns, the response was immediate and overwhelming.
Athletic directors and coaches across sports, but particularly football coaches, quickly released statements on the conference’s decision — the MWC was just the second FBS conference to postpone the season, behind the Mid-American Conference — and a common theme emerged: The postponement of sports was done with the well-being of the student-athletes in mind.
“We just don’t feel like it is safe to say it is safe to proceed forward.” — Utah State athletic director John Hartwell
“Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our students, student-athletes, coaches, faculty, staff and overall communities,” Mary Papazian, president at San José State University and chair of the MW Board of Directors, said in the conference’s official announcement. “Through the hard work of many over the past several months, the conference made every effort to create an opportunity for our student-athletes to compete, and we empathize with the disappointment this creates for everyone associated with our programs. The best interests of our students and student-athletes remain our focus and we will persist in our efforts to forge a viable and responsible path forward.”
Welfare and safety
The conference did not get into specifics as to why, though. Why was the postponement of fall sports necessary to keep student-athletes safe?
In an interview with 1280 the Zone on Tuesday, Utah State athletic director John Hartwell provided the answer.
Specifically when it comes to the well-being of the student-athletes, there were concerns about the long-term effects of COVID-19. Hartwell noted that the virus and our collective understanding of it are still in their infancy, all things considered. We don’t know for certain the impact the virus can have on even the healthiest individual, particularly where pulmonary and respiratory issues are concerned.
“While we take calculated risks on a daily basis, our opinion, or at least our (university) presidents’ opinion, was we can’t safely say this is a good idea, to go forward, to have competitions,” said Hartwell. “We just don’t feel like it is safe to say it is safe to proceed forward.”
As for the argument that student-athletes would be safer on university campuses, in bubble-like situations with frequent testing and mandated protocols, Hartwell is in agreement.
“You can make that work in some cases,” he said.
The issue stems not from the sterilized campus environment, but rather from everything else that comes with collegiate athletics.
“The real challenge to that is when you start traveling,” Hartwell explained. “You add variables and add people into that inner bubble. It isn’t just about isolating. When you take a travel party of 140 people for football, or 30 people for soccer, or 25 people for our cross country teams, how can you do that and somewhat keep a bubble and keep them safe?
“It isn’t just about going to Laramie (Wyoming) or Fort Collins (Colorado) to compete, but about all the time in between at airports, in buses and hotels. Who you come across from a contact tracing standpoint matters, and then who you come across when you return.”
Hartwell conceded that recent player movements, specifically the social media campaign #MWUnited, which introduced conditions to players’ willingness to play football this fall, played an impact in the conference’s decision — “I think you can’t dismiss that and say it was a non-factor,” he said — but ultimately the deciding factor for the presidents was “the health and safety of the student athletes, coaches and support staffs.”
The decision to postpone fall sports did not come easily, either, Hartwell added. There was “healthy discussion back and forth,” as each of the 12 member schools hail from different geographic locales, many of which have varying political climates (Hartwell specifically mentioned New Mexico, since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham urged both New Mexico and New Mexico State to postpone fall sports, including football, because of the coronavirus in late July).
There also was not a classic vote, yay or nay, to postpone fall sports. Rather, the university presidents came to a simple consensus.
“They did not vote,” said Hartwell. “They all supported postponing fall sports.”
So where do the Aggies and the rest of the MWC go from here? In the aftermath of Monday’s announcement, an air of stubborn determination could be felt from varied voices across the conference.
Having gone through months of turmoil — Hartwell described it as mental anguish — there was a general resolve to continue moving forward.
“While today is a hard day, know that we will regroup, preserve, and be even more determined to do what we love — teach, compete and represent this community,” read a statement by UNLV athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois. “In the meantime, we will focus our energy on our exceptional student-athletes and support them in every way possible.”
“We will devote our full attention to ensuring our student-athletes can have the most meaningful experience they rightfully deserve,” read another statement, courtesy of Colorado State athletic director Joe Parker.
As for football, multiple coaches, including Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin, released statements over Twitter detailing a determination to continue to move past the disappointment and on to whatever is next for the sport.
“This team wanted to play, our coaches wanted to play, I wanted to play,” Harsin said. “That is no longer an option for this fall, but now we must look forward. I love this team and will will never stop fighting for them. While our timeline has changed, our goals have not. We will continue working to develop total student-athletes, win championships, and keep Boise State as one of the elite programs nationally.”
Double the spring sports, double the fun
The new timeline may involve a spring football season, a statement from San Diego State athletic director John David Wicker said.
“We will continue to evaluate the possibility of a spring season for those sport’s impacted by today’s decision,” said Wicker.
Any move to spring, would have to “coincide with NCAA legislation and guidance, and safety protocol from health officials at all levels,” Boise State athletic director Curt Apsey said in release of his own.
Spring football is a possibility, Hartwell conceded. The most pressing issue, besides the virus itself, will be how to hold a spring football season that would allow for enough recovery time for the student-athletes to play a traditional fall football season in 2021.
“I don’t think it is a pie in the sky thing,” he said. “If someone had mentioned that to me before this year I would have looked at them like they had three heads, but in today’s world of trying to adapt and do what is best, we are at least looking at options. Obviously we would have loved to have played this fall. A spring football season would be out of the norm, but we would need to figure out how we could make it work and allow enough recovery and down time as you get into late May and June to allow us to resume some sense of a normal season come fall of 2021.”
There are plenty of additional questions that the MW and its individual schools have to answer between now and any college football season, whether it be in the spring or next fall. Finances will be a major issue, eligibility for athletes — whether they gain it or lose it — as well.
For the time being, though, the conference believes it made the right decision. And for the first time in months, student-athletes across the MWC have the chance to experience a little bit of closure, after months of unknowns.
“Having some closure, even though it may be temporary, is good for the mental state of our student-athletes,” said Hartwell. “That is important. COVID-19 is a virus that affects physical health, but also mental aspect. The anguish and anxiety has taken a toll on our student-athletes and continues to do so. Hopefully with a little closure we can move forward.”