With social distancing practices changing the way students live their lives in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Big Sky Conference has taken the unprecedented decision to cancel the spring sports season and suspend practices and workouts for the remainder of the year.
On March 18 the Presidents’ Council of the Big Sky Conference voted unanimously to shutter all spring sports. This vote followed an extraordinary NCAA decision to cancel all winter and spring championships, something it didn’t even do during World War II.
For 122 EWU student-athletes who compete in men’s and women’s outdoor track, men’s and women’s tennis and women’s golf, the decision is easy to understand but hard to swallow.
“I feel like it was the right thing to do,” said senior sprinter Dawson Lack, “but I’m extremely disappointed because I redshirted last year and now I’m missing this year.”
This sentiment was echoed by golf coach Brenda Howe, whose team was in the middle of a tournament when the Big Sky suspended play.
“Obviously it was disappointing to end the season short,” said Howe. “It was the right decision though. What’s going on right now in the world is bigger than any sport or person.”
The NCAA has responded to the crisis by granting spring sports athletes an extra year of eligibility. They have also extended film review for the football team, which is conducted remotely, from two hours to four.
The decision not only affects winter and spring sports but also fall sports. Spring is the time when student-athletes work on skills and get bigger, stronger and faster according to Athletic Director Lynn Hickey, something that isn’t possible under social distancing measures.
“We’re able to do some things,” said Hickey. “Our coaches do Zoom meetings and our strength and conditioning coach has sent workout videos, using bodyweight only.”
Hickey said the athletic trainers and coaches are also working with student-athletes on nutrition and sleep to keep them healthy.
“This really is bigger than just our athletes, though,” said Hickey. “It’s uniformly difficult for everyone. From businessmen to artists to athletes; goals and aspirations have been taken away, lives have been changed.”
Another challenge that student-athletes face is maintaining NCAA academic eligibility. Student-athletes have minimum GPA and enrollment requirements as well as mandatory study hall and tutoring sessions, which coaches and academic support staff have been scrambling to organize remotely.
Still, the biggest challenge for athletes may be the sudden void left by the absence of sports and team structures.
“Most of our kids have gone home,” said Hickey. “They’re going from really busy days and a really strong support structure to having a lot of time on their hands. Our coaches are working really hard to keep them engaged.”
“I work out in my small garage gym,” said Lack, who is enrolled in a five-year MBA program and stays busy by focusing on school.
Howe said her student-athletes are also doing well.
“The ladies are handling it well,” said Howe. “It’s disappointing that this was the best team in program history, and we had a senior with a very strong chance to make it to the NCAA Championships, which would have been the first time in program history.”
Howe stressed that her athletes aren’t getting wrapped up in what might have been and are all excited for the next chapter. Howe also said that her team isn’t taking it as hard because they had already completed 70% of the season competitions.
However, athletes like Lack were dealt a more serious blow this spring.
“If I get to compete in outdoor again, it will have been three years since I last competed,” said Lack.
Lack said that he would love to apply for another year of eligibility, but his academic program may not make that possible.
Hickey said she understands that lives are being thrown off course but also noted the gravity of the situation for the wider world.
“The things we love and care about and have fun with are going to have to get pushed to the side because this is literally life and death,” said Hickey.
She also thinks EWU athletes will pull through.
“We talk a lot about Eagle grit around here, but it’s true,” said Hickey. “Our athletes are really resilient.”