Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier sports editor
On Oct. 16, the Southern Athletic Association (SAA) announced it had tentatively approved a modified schedule for fall sports to compete in the spring. With a further confirmation expected in December, a COVID-19 task force will work to establish clear protocols to ensure a safe return for college athletics across the conference.
Angel Mason, Berry’s director of athletics, said the conference condensed the regular schedules to allow for fall, winter and spring sports to compete in the same semester. As part of that initiative, championship tournaments will be cut down to single weekend events.
“There is some review for some of the championship formats,” Mason said. “We do have some championships that in the past have gone over multiple weekends, and in order to kind of cut down on travel and to make sure that we are being as cautious as possible while still providing some opportunity, we’ve condensed down to one weekend tournaments.”
Other than that, however, Mason said things will look pretty similar to previous seasons.
“The spring schedules are the same,” Mason said. “The fall and winter schedules are basically the same with the exception that they’ve been moved and they may have some changes in partner teams or when they’re actually playing. We’re trying to condense the number of overnights, have more day trips.”
The main focus now for administrators is the need for consistent guidelines across all member schools, which Mason said was what the task force is working on.
“We are coming together and working on minimum standards for competition, travel, testing processes, communication around that, so tracking and tracing if something happens when you left the campus, how to make sure that we’re continuing to communicate even post-competition, all the gamut of things,” Mason said. “Once we set our minimum standards, anybody who wants to compete against someone who’s not in our conference, they have to compete against someone who are at our minimum standard or above, in order to protect conference play.”
Though Mason said she was aware a lot could still go wrong, she said everybody is doing everything they can to provide seasons for every sport.
“I think that everybody has doubts in the back of their minds as to how this will continue to progress,” Mason said. “What I can say is that as a group, we really want to be trying to provide this opportunity to play, we really do. And I can speak for all of our conference schools in that we’re all kind of throwing different things against the wall to see what can stick in order to support all of us in competition.”
One aspect that will come into play is the need for additional testing of student athletes. In order for Berry to comply with NCAA standards, their athletes will have to be regularly tested, and Mason said positive cases could potentially end their individual seasons.
“If someone tests positive, they’re done,” Mason said. “And with some of the shortened seasons and our return to play protocol, it could mean they don’t end up coming back with the team. Their competition could be over by the time they come back depending when they test positive.”
Large outbreaks like those some athletic programs experienced in the fall could also causes problems, as teams could potentially be left with too few players to compete. However, Mason said she was hopeful everyone had learned from this semester and they would not have a repeat scenario in the spring.
Mason said the conference is also aware of the importance of athletics not only for the players, but for the fans, and they are therefore considering what to do regarding possible fan attendance. While parents, alumni, or opposing fans would not be permitted access under Berry’s current visitation policy, Mason said she does expect students to be able to attend games.
“If someone’s already a part of your community, then it can be considered that there’s not a heightened level of risk for them to go and watch a game,” Mason said. “They’re already a part of this community, they’re already living and breathing it. Bringing in fans from the opposing team or all of that, there’s going to be more risk. The more people you put into a space, the more there is that needs to be considered.”
Because of these restrictions, and because many alumni, donors and parents have been reaching out to her to know if they would be able to support their teams, Mason said the department will look into livestreaming all of its events. While Viking Fusion’s sports broadcast team was disbanded as a result of the changes to the LifeWorks program, they only covered football, volleyball and basketball. The athletics department streamed the other sports, and Mason said they will now look to upgrade their services.
“We’re looking to continue to do that, but we need to kick it up a level,” Mason said. “We only had two sources of livestreaming equipment and those would move from venue to venue. We’re in the midst of a crowd-funding campaign right now to be able to get a full tech setup for each of our home venues, so we can have multiple livestreams taking place at the same time.”
If the department is to acquire the necessary funds, however, it will still face another obstacle in its quest to livestream its games, according to Mason. Blake Childers, Berry’s former director of sports information, recently stepped down from the role and has yet to be replaced. With the applicant pool open, a search committee formed and application reviews starting next week, Mason said it is crucial they fill the position soon.
“We’re trying to find a replacement for a pivotal position in what we normally do, but even more in this era of virtual living,” Mason said. “We’ve got to be able to stream, we’ve got to be prepared to manage, we’ve got to get a student workforce together, but we need somebody to lead that.”
A lot therefore still remains to be determined, but Mason said Berry and the conference have contingency plans in place so they can quickly adjust to whatever may occur in the coming months, and they will keep doing everything in their power to ensure the proposed spring seasons become a possibility.
“We’re trying really hard to be able to make sure that we provide the overall experience that all of our students want,” Mason said. “Our student athletes, general student population and then all of those that are fans, the fans on our campus and the fans that are at home. Everybody is really in this together trying to support our programs.”