In the Age of the Pandemic, is Fair Competition Possible?

The word “fair” is sprinkled 47 times throughout the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) guidelines. In fact, in Article 2, the Principles for Conduct of Intercollegiate Athletics, the guidelines directly address fairness’s fundamental importance. Bylaw 2.10 addresses the principle of competitive equity, stating, “the structure of programs of the Association and activities of its members shall promote opportunity for equity in competition to ensure that individual student-athletes and institutions will not be prevented unfairly from achieving the benefits inherent in participation in intercollegiate athletics.”

The NCAA is committed to fair competition; it is so important to the Association that they list it as one of their Commitments to the Division I Collegiate Model. The Commitment to Fair Competition shall be designed to promote the opportunity for institutions and eligible student-athletes to engage in fair competition. The NCAA acknowledges the variability between members, including facilities, geographic locations, and resources. The NCAA indicates areas that impact fair competition, including; personnel, eligibility, amateurism, recruiting, financial aid, the length of playing and practice seasons, and the number of institutional competitions per sport.

With the insurgence of a coronavirus, schools are still committed to having college athletics. But with so many pricey guidelines, including testing and PPE, how can schools afford to run their athletic departments? Most of them can’t. Coronavirus has exposed the deep monetary inequalities between schools. In just three months of the pandemic, 30 Division I sports teams were discontinued to save money. These schools opted to discontinue the teams to fix a much deeper fundamental problem, the model of fairness within the NCAA.

The coronavirus has exposed the deep inequalities between athletic departments, and testing is acting as a stress test for athletic budgets. For sports to continue, athletic departments must follow procedures and guidelines presented by local governments, state governments, the federal government, the CDC, and their specific school protocols. There is one thing that all of these protocols have in common; they cost money. Another commonality between the protocols is they require adequate testing to be conducted. However, providing sufficient testing for student-athletes can cost an athletic department millions of dollars. Thus, if testing is the prerequisite for safely playing sports, the vast majority of schools will cancel or postpone their seasons. So, how is this fair competition?

Image Credit: Keith Srakocic / AP

Some schools can proceed with practice and workouts because they have the resources to make sure that their athletes are following the necessary protocols. At the same time, others were forced to postpone workouts or cancel them altogether. To maintain fairness, the NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball Oversight Committee is finalizing their recommendations for consideration by the NCAA Division I Council for the basketball season. After the determinations are finished, the NCAA will provide direction about whether practice and the season will start on time, or if there will be a short-term delay.

Image Credit: Kim Klement / USA Today Sports

However, even though the NCAA is making an effort to provide the same allotted hours for each program, some schools will not have the necessary resources even to practice. When accounting for cleaning time and social distancing, some schools will not use all of their allotted hours. Some schools do not have the number of facilities necessary to maintain social distancing. For example, a school with a small weight room will not be able to provide weight training to its athletes. The department will have to be creative about who is scheduled in the training room and give enough time for the training room to be adequately cleaned, while programs with several weight training sites will have more flexibility in scheduling their athletes. Further, if a sport is out of season but requires the gym for out-of-season workouts, they will likely have to be socially distanced and be separated into small groups of student-athletes. If the school does not have multiple gyms in its athletic department, it will likely be impossible to schedule everyone into the gym for their practice times. Not to mention, some coaches have been furloughed, but are expected to work regardless. For example, the University of Utah furloughed its entire athletic department to due to the losses from coronavirus. Each of the University of Utah athletic department staff will be furloughed for a minimum of one week and as many as eight weeks. Despite this, the PAC-12 announced that it would be resuming football. While it is likely that the football staff will have a shortened furlough period because of the upcoming season, it is unclear how this will impact the teams. One thing is for sure; this year will look a lot different than previous years. Additionally, the NCAA may need to reflect on its regulations to address the equity issues among schools.

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