COVID-19 cancels and changes athletics across the globe

Sights+from+outside+Amherst+College+gym+where+spectators+were+banned+from+attending+regional+games+from+the+DIII+women%27s+basketball+tournament.

D3 Hoops/Pat Coleman

Sights from outside Amherst College gym where spectators were banned from attending regional games from the DIII women's basketball tournament.

The sports world has been drastically impacted by COVID-19. All around the world, athletic competition came to pause in order to help combat the virus.

In the month of March, there were discussions in the athletic world about how they would continue going forward. There were some discussions about the possibility of teams playing without fans. Some speculated that they might cancel games, which many people, including NBA all-star Lebron James, found ridiculous. James was quoted as saying “If I show up to an arena and there are no fans in there, I ain’t playing. They can do what they want to do.” 

While the pandemic was still rising, some teams and competitions applied restrictions to athletic competitions. On March 4, Italian football league Serie A announced that there wouldn’t be any fans for a month for their league games. On March 10, an UEFA Champions League match between Valencia and Atalanta took place in an empty Valencia stadium. Despite the team not allowing any fans, around 40 thousand supporters showed up to the Valencia stadium.

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Valencia fans outside during their match against Atalanta

Close to a week after the match, the director of the intensive care unit at Bergamo’s Pope Giovanni Hospital XXIII reported that the Champions League match between the two sides acted as an accelerator in Spain’s spread of the COVID-19 disease. 35 percent of the staff and squad of Valencia tested positive, even though they played behind closed doors.

In the United States, some competitions were taking precautions as well. Division III men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were occurring in the early portions of March. Some host sites held games without fans due to the recent news about the coronavirus. On March 6, D3 Hoops/Pat Coleman tweeted out a picture of the doors to Amherst College, one of the regional hosts for the women’s tournament, with signs that closed out the event to spectators. This led to many family members upset that they traveled so far, only to be shut out for the games.

On March 11, the sports world came to a halt. Just minutes before a game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, a team doctor ran onto the court to announce that Jazz’s star center Rudy Gobert had tested positive for the coronavirus, which led to the game being postponed.

Following that announcement, the game in Sacramento between the Kings and the New Orleans Pelicans was then postponed that same night following the recent events during the Jazz vs. Thunder game. The only game that continued that night was the Dallas Mavericks vs. Denver Nuggets game, as their game was in the later stages when the announcement was made in Oklahoma City. Once the Nuggets and Mavericks game finished, the NBA would be suspending all future games until further notice.

Once the NBA announced its decision, many leagues and competitions around the world then suspended their seasons until further notice. The only league that was able to continue was the WWE, who decided to host events in their home facilities in Florida. In the days and weeks that followed, many teams and players from all sports leagues announced that they contracted the virus, many of them asymptomatic. 

When many leagues and competitions announced their suspension of competitions on March 12, was the same day that Northern Vermont University and fellow North Atlantic Conference (NAC) member Maine Maritime Academy announced their decision to suspend their competitions. NAC members UMaine-Presque Isle and UMaine-Farmington canceled all their spring sports, and Thomas College suspended all out-of-state travel and home contests with out-of-state opponents. On March 13, the NAC suspended all conference games and events, and then on March 17, they officially canceled the 2020 spring season.

According to Jamey Ventura, NVU associate dean of athletics, in the weeks leading up to the suspension of games, there wasn’t a clue on what would potentially happen to athletics especially within the North Atlantic Conference.

A week before their NAC athletic directors meeting on March 9 and 10, Ventura recalls that he had gotten an email with the agenda for their upcoming meeting from the NAC Commissioner Marcella Zalot and noticed that it had no mention on COVID-19 and the potential issues that could come if affected athletics. Eventually, it was put on the agenda on day two of their meeting, just for a way to get AD’s thoughts about the subject.

“At that point, it really wasn’t even a thought within the NAC,” Ventura said. “Then Monday, March 9, we got there and there was so much information coming out about the rise of the disease. We ended up starting the meeting with that conversation [about the coronavirus], and at that point, the AD’s, were concerned about how they were going to get their spring sports teams to be able to at least get games in until the spring break. But the thought was with everybody in the NAC was that we were still going to finish our seasons.”

But that didn’t happen. Since the cancelation of spring athletics at Johnson and the move to remote online instruction, Ventura and his staff have had to work completely online as well. He mentioned that his department has been doing online Zoom meetings every Wednesday, and coaches and administrators keep him informed through email daily.

Ventura mentioned that the students are still a priority, even during these difficult times. One initiative that they have done over the last month has been sing along videos, where coaches, staff, and students have joined in to sing songs like “You Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer, “Do You Believe In Magic” by The Lovin’ Spoonful, and “Crocodile Rock” by Elton John. He mentioned it was a way to help students take their mind off the troubles that they could be potentially facing during these times. Ventura has also made it a focus for coaches to keep in touch with their current players and potential recruits to check in to see how they are doing.

With the unknown timetable of when things could be safe for students to return and athletics to resume competition again, Ventura is hoping that there is a way to start up summer camps and be able to resume competitions in the fall.

“I’d like to say we’re going to have summer camps,” he said. “I’m still staying optimistic. We’re going to get this under control as a country, we’re going to control the curve and then by summer, we’ll be back to normal, but you also hear this could either stay or come back in the fall into the winter. So you have to start thinking about fall sports. I was talking to Shane [Bufano, head men’s soccer coach], and he said that he has one of his best recruiting classes coming in. He’s already got 11 deposits, a lot of his guys are coming back, and so he’s been really excited about his upcoming season. But then he’s thinking what if his team can’t play in the fall, and if there is a possibility the NCAA will move the fall sports into the spring those guys don’t lose a whole year. It could be a possibility.”

Ventura mentioned that the NCAA and the NAC could potentially move the fall seasons into the spring, which would create issues with the spring season with scheduling games and having people available to work these contests.

Another part of this are the senior spring athletes who lost their last season to compete. On March 18, the NCAA granted Division III spring sport athletes an extra year of eligibility to compete. Even with athletes being able to play another year, it would be hard to compete, as many athletes pay to compete in DIII athletics, and many have no credits remaining in order to become eligible for that season.

One senior athlete is Jesse Streeter. He started playing men’s volleyball during the 2019 season and played in a handful of games in the 2020 season before the cancelation of spring athletics. He mentions that playing next year isn’t off the table for him, but he might also take a year off and save money for law school the following year.

“I’ve been talking to my coaches and teammates and I’ve got some big decisions to make,” Streeter said. “I know we had one other senior on the men’s volleyball team, and he was strongly considering it. The school is in the position where they aren’t graduating a ton of seniors, so a lot of them aren’t in that position to make that decision, but I can’t see a lot of seniors coming back to play their spring sports. I think though it’s going to create an interesting position for many athletes who aren’t graduating this year and how they might use that extra year of eligibility.”

Even with the uncertainty that comes with these upcoming months, Ventura hopes to be able to see students be back on campus soon.

“We want to get back to the place that we all call home,” he said. “We want to get everyone back together and get our community back together to show that we persevered during these difficult times.”