The NCAA announced Wednesday it is cancelling national championships in all fall sports at the Division II and III levels, leaving several Minnesota schools with no chance to play for national titles this year. But another NCAA edict — a set of new return-to-sport rules — left some wondering whether they will play at all.
The new rules would require COVID-19 testing of athletes as often as every week in some sports, and results must be received within 72 hours of competition in high-contact sports. Minnesota State Mankato athletic director Kevin Buisman called that “a game-changer” for schools hoping to compete in fall sports. Buisman and Concordia (St. Paul) athletic director Regan McAthie said not every school will be able to comply, which could shut down fall sports entirely.
The NCAA’s Board of Governors was expected to issue a ruling Tuesday on fall sports championships for all divisions. Wednesday, it said each division would decide on its own, with a deadline of Aug. 21. D-II and D-III officials quickly announced they would scrap their championships.
McAthie said the news “was a little bit of a gut punch for all of us” at a school that has won nine NCAA volleyball titles. The Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference — which includes Concordia, MSU Mankato and seven other Minnesota schools — will hold meetings in the coming days to discuss how to move forward.
“I definitely think [the season] is in danger,” McAthie said. “One of the things that kept us moving forward with sports in the fall was that up until [Wednesday], the NCAA championships were going to take place in the fall. That was a driving factor for us.
“Now that that’s no longer happening, I definitely think it opens up conversations about, do we compete for conference championships? And is that happening in the fall, or more than likely in the spring, if it happens at all? And there’s still the aspect of the [new rules] and whether or not schools can follow them, and whether schools feel like it’s responsible for them to continue.”
In a statement, the D-II Presidents Council said it made the decision because of “operational, logistical and financial challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.” The Division III Presidents Council released a similar statement, citing “administrative and financial challenges.” The D-III Management Council recommended last month that the Board of Governors call off its fall championships.
Buisman said the news drew a range of emotions from MSU Mankato’s coaches, staff and athletes, including anger, sadness, frustration and anxiety. While he said the cancellation “buckled some knees,” the new rules hit equally hard. The NCAA’s regulations apply to preseason, regular season and postseason competition for all schools.
The rules include regular testing of athletes and staff; covering the cost of COVID-related medical expenses; and observing specific protocols, including use of masks and social distancing. Buisman said some schools will not be able to afford or even obtain testing supplies, and there also is inconsistency between NCAA mandates and state guidelines.
“The NCAA guidance went from ‘you should’ to ‘you must,’ ” Buisman said. “The biggest challenge is with the testing protocols. Are we supposed to do what the state is telling us to do, or the NCAA? In some cases, they’re in conflict with one another.”
Buisman and McAthie both noted that if tests are scarce, schools also would face the issue of whether it is ethical to use them for otherwise healthy student-athletes.
The NSIC’s athletic directors plan to meet Thursday. Its board of directors will meet Monday, and Buisman said the goal is to preserve a season in some form.
“We’re in a different place now than we were last week, in terms of what direction we take on this,” he said. “We’re all committed to trying to salvage competitive opportunities for these fall-sport athletes if we can do it safely.”