If fall brings football for the OVC, ‘It’s going to look very different in terms of structure’
today at 4:25 pm
“It’s an interesting time. We sure hope so is the best answer. All of us are working very hard and trying very hard to plan for a football season this fall. Obviously, everyone in Division I football wants there to be a football season coming up here in a month plus, but we need to make sure we do it in a safe and prudent way. I wish I had a more definitive answer, but we’re spending all of our time planning as if there will be a football season.”
–Beth DeBauche, Division I Collegiate Commissioner’s Association President, on whether there will be college football in the fall
In a time of so many unknowns, Ohio Valley Conference Commissioner Beth DeBauche discussed what is known as her league prepares for what she hopes is the league’s 73rd season of collegiate football.
“What we know is that there is a sure, clear intention for the vast majority of us to have the fall [season] and we’re trying to work together,” DeBauche told Prairie State Pigskin Wednesday afternoon. “We know that things will look very different; that’s the known that we have. It’s going to look very different in terms of structure.”
DeBauche, who has been OVC commissioner since 2009, elaborated on what that structure would look like.
“There will be absolute safety precautions that are there from a COVID standpoint that have never been part of the game before,” she said. “Those standards are based on the medical evidence and the scientific evidence available at that time, but if we had to play today we know that masking or face-covering is going to be a portion of the game. We’ll see coaches and student-athletes on the sidelines, and others on the sidelines, all with masks on. We’ll see sidelines that look different because there’s every indication that there will be a spread of the team area; the box will be made bigger to allow for social distancing.
“And some of the fanfare that’s associated with football will be provided in very different ways. The turf and field areas will just become much more pure screened areas. Those involved will be few; they’ll be essential to the playing of the game.”
The OVC began playing football in 1948. Eastern Illinois joined the conference in 1996. The Panthers have won seven OVC titles, the last coming in 2013.
In addition to being the OVC commissioner, DeBauche serves as the President of the Division I Collegiate Commissioner’s Association (CCA). Thus, she organizes and leads regular meetings with all Division I conference commissioners at an irregular time in history. Those meetings are being held virtually.
“What’s been interesting about navigating this pandemic situation from an athletic administration standpoint, separate from all the big social issues associated with it, are how as a group of commissioners, we have really worked together and come together in ways that really demonstrate how much all of college athletics means to us,” DeBauche said. “We are meeting as a group of 32 multiple times a week to talk. All of the subdivision commissioner groups are meeting again multiple times a week to talk through issues.
“Not that we won’t advise our presidents and chancellors independently, but to make sure that we’re seeing issues the same way. This is new for everybody. We’re trying to help one another through this process, so certainly the information that we’re getting and sharing with one another about the structure of sport will influence.”
The committees have sought information from a variety of sources.
“Our institutions all have worked already to produce their own campus policies working with local and state health advisors,” DeBauche said. “From a national perspective, Dr. Brian Hainline, who is the chief medical officer for the NCAA, has been absolutely tremendous with us in terms of sharing the latest information that’s available through the Sport Science Institute [founded in 2013] and making himself so remarkably available for the conferences to help work through and talk through some issues as we think through what plans should look like.
“Certainly, there will be the local influence, there will be university influence. We as a conference relying on one another and working with the NCAA to bring the best information that we have available to use to ultimately guide the decisions.”
On Wednesday, the Ivy League became the first Division I conference to cancel all fall sports. DeBauche was asked if the Ivy League decision will have a domino effect or whether conferences and universities will make their decisions independently.
“It needs to be a little bit of both,” DeBauche said. “Over the years Division I has definitely morphed from being more presidentially led from top to bottom than it was back in the day. With that, the presidents and chancellors are going to make the best decisions for their leagues and for what they need to do for the communities or cities that they serve. While commissioners will advise and provide recommendations, it will ultimately be the decisions of university chancellors and presidents, by and large.
“So, while they’ll watch what’s going on nationally . . . What’s probably more likely is with certain regions of the country making decisions that look similar in nature because of how the pandemic has evolved, slightly different decisions [will be made]. We’ll watch what’s going on, but more importantly we’ll talk to one another so we know already what we anticipate is going to go on and that will be part of what informs our decision making. I don’t think it’s just going to be this shoe drops and the rest of us will follow.”
‘We are a bus league’
Ohio Valley Conference football covers five states — Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee.
“The good thing about the OVC is that we are a presidents’ league,” DeBauache said. “Not all leagues are driven by the presidents; some leagues are more AD-centric, some leagues are more faculty-athletic representative centric. The Ohio Valley Conference has long been a presidentially led league, so certainly our presidents will make those decisions when the ultimate time comes.
“Relative to this pandemic situation, we are more blessed than a lot of conferences with our geographic footprint in that predominantly we are a bus league. For the vast majority of our conference games in every sport, teams rely on bus transportation. There are a few exceptions to that. As we look to the year ahead, again it will look different. We will try to schedule where possible game times and travel that keeps students and teams closer to home and/or when possible shorter days out of the road. All of us take a bit of solace in the fact that as a bus league we have a bit more freedom than conferences where they rely on, in large measure, air travel.”
Is a decision forthcoming?
So when will a decision will be made regarding OVC football?
“You have to spite your inclination to say that we need to make decisions now,” DeBauche said. “I think everybody, to be fair to student-athletes and coaches and programs, would like to make decisions sooner rather than later. The more time we can build out, the more informed we’ll be about the COVID-19 virus and what avenues and such are available to us.
“We’re certainly wanting to push it out if we can in making those decisions. We will gauge off what we see nationally, working with other conferences, and from what we’re hearing from the NCAA as well. While certainly not definitive as a point of a final decision, I can share with you that we have a presidents’ meeting arranged for the absolute end of July to continue discussions on issues.”
Plans for play
If the OVC moves forward to play this fall, what models could or would the league follow?
“To be fair, right now any concept could be considered. We all want to plan and we factor certain models. We are clearly focusing right now on what a traditional football season and schedule looks like,” DeBauche said. “Our membership, just based on surveys from the presidents’ level on down, was asked the question if not all teams could play, would we consider a model where certain teams played and certain teams didn’t and came and went. And at that point in time when they took the survey, the membership all agreed that the focus of this season should really be on making sure that we provide, if possible, student-athletes an ability to play. And so it would be okay [to play a revamped conference schedule] than it had in other years.
“Now, there are a lot of details that need to be worked out with something like that in terms of access, but if you think of a sport other than football where you have a championship, you want to create a model where it’s fair for teams that would not qualify for a conference championship. So maybe some schools play part of a season and they’re not necessarily eligible for a championship and others are able to play a complete season and they can compete in a championship. [To consider] that lens, there are a couple priorities that are really driving discussions and decisions. The first is figuring out how to do this in a way that we can feel confident that our student-athletes feel safe and protected and are participants. Assuming that all that is in place, just making sure if we can do that, there are opportunities for the student-athletes to be able to compete because we know that they love competition. So that’s more important than competitive equity issues which drive some of our decisions in a typical year.”
Daily sports reports focus as much on COVID-19 testing as it does on Xs and Os or player profiles. Questions abound on numerous aspects of that testing; however, for schools such as FCS members like Eastern Illinois, the costs have to be taken into account.
A recent Washington Post story stated, “Weekly testing at current prices, which range from $40 to $240 per test, would be cost-prohibitive even for some Division I schools that play in the less lucrative Football Championship Subdivision.”
Moreover, the story said FCS member Tennessee Chattanooga athletic director Mark Wharton declared the price for coronavirus tests would need to drop from the $65 he was recently quoted to about $8 for his department to be able to afford to test all athletes weekly.
“I just don’t see how that’s feasible at the current price,” Wharton said of weekly testing.
The Washington Post story by Will Hobson likewise noted that some schools “are following the potential for pooled or batch testing, a more cost-effective but less precise method. In batch testing, every player for a team would submit a sample — ideally, blood — that is combined, and all the samples are tested at once. The result would tell officials whether there were any infected athletes on a team and could be useful as a pregame test.”
However, batch testing does not identify individuals who have tested positive, only that there have been positives in the pool.
Where does this leave the OVC?
“I think a lot of people are really hopeful that this batch antigen testing will be very, very helpful and will have a lower price,” DeBauche said. “We’ll find a way. If we’re doing this, we’ll do it right and we’ll find a way to structure that when we play that we’ll do what is needed in the sport. What I anticipate what will happen is sports will be classified as having different levels, so while one sport will require frequent testing other sports, if managed appropriately with social distancing and students wearing masks, may not need as much testing. So it may not be every sport, every contest . . . so we’ll listen to the science and to the doctors and we’ll have some decisions to make as how to structure it. Where there’s a will, we’ll figure that part of it out.”
The difficult part is that time is running out for such decisions, especially given that the United States is again seeing a rise in positive coronavirus cases.
Despite this, DeBauche remains steadfast in her commitment to collegiate athletics.
“We know how to run sports. We get paid, in part, to run championships, build schedules, handle sports administration. We know how to do that, and when the facts become more clear, we’re going to know how to respond. So perhaps one of the biggest challenges right now is to fight your internal drive to create certainty in a situation that’s not very certain,” she said.
DeBauche added,”We’ll know how to manage; it’s just the facts we need to clarify a bit more. I think one of the biggest challenges that we’re going to have as we move forward is making people feel comfortable and safe in those decisions. We’re playing intercollegiate athletics because student-athletes love it and it’s part of their overall experience, so we need to make sure that these student-athletes really do love it and feel comfortable in that situation and we’re doing the best thing for these students.
“When they look back on the fall of 2020, and they look back long-term and say it was a good thing to do and I’m really glad that we did it. We need to be attentive; these students are having to manage an awful lot. As an adult, this is a hard thing to manage. As a young person, they’re trying to go to school, get an education, play sports. [We’ve] got to feel comfortable with the decisions that are ultimately made.”