Moving ahead – or not – with athletics

A field and track athlete from Paradise Valley Community College (PVCC) participates in the spring championships in 2019. The college is part of the Maricopa Community Colleges system, which is considering canceling athletics for the 2020-21 academic year. Most PVCC classes will be primarily online or live online for the upcoming semester. (Photo: NJCAA)

As the uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic continues, community colleges are making some tough calls when it comes to the 2020-2021 academic year, including suspending or scaling back sports. 

Sinclair Community College in Ohio was one of the first colleges to announce it would suspend sports for the full academic year. Administrators made the decision during the period where student-athletes were getting ready to commit to the college by signing letters of intent. 

“It would not have been fair to ask these students to enroll when there was and continues to be a lot of uncertainty and questions around the ongoing pandemic,” including administering social distance guidelines and following state and public health orders, said Sinclair spokesperson Deena John. 

This week’s poll: Plans for fall athletics

Sinclair leaders believed that telling student-athletes as early as possible about the continuing public health realities was important so that they could make the best decisions possible. And since a majority of student athletes at the college are from out of town, they needed to know about the sports season before signing leases on apartments or make other living arrangements. 

To help those who are directly affected by the suspension of the 2020-21 sports season, all 88 student athletes don’t have to worry about their tuition and fees. Sinclair will cover the remainder of tuition and fees not covered by any financial aid students receive. If students still want to leave Sinclair, the college’s coaches have been available to help them through the transition process. 

Since Sinclair’s announcement, a handful of other colleges have followed suit. Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland has suspended fall and winter athletics, and Northern Virginia Community College and Lehigh Carbon Community College in Lehigh County, Pennsylvania, have suspended athletics for the full academic year. In Arizona, the Maricopa Community Colleges system is considering the same for its 10 colleges.

Moving forward

Despite that, the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) plans on most colleges having some sort of athletics this fall. The association, which includes 482 public two-year college members, issued on June 19 a plan of action for the fall and winter sports season, as well as a list of safety protocol recommendations for regular season competition and championship events.

As of now, NJCAA will proceed with fall championship sports, with a practice start date of August 1, and the first competition planned for August 20 for specific sports, including cross country and soccer. Some non-championship sports will have condensed seasons. Baseball, golf, beach volleyball, lacrosse, softball and tennis will begin practices August 31. Their seasons will conclude on October 31. 

The safety protocol recommendations include adhering to state and local guidance, performing temperature checks on athletes, coaches and game personnel, and eliminating contact between teams and engagement with fans whenever possible.

The California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA) recently released three potential scenarios for the upcoming sports season. 

“We’re learning to be much more flexible than we ever thought we could be,” said CCCAA Interim Executive Director Jennifer Cardone. “We have a solid plan to forge ahead with. It’s a matter of whether the pandemic will cooperate.” 

Under the first scenario – the “conventional plan” – sports will resume in the fall, with exception of basketball. There will be a later start date, a shorter season and fewer competitions. 

If California remains in Stage 3 of its reopening plan, then CCCAA will pivot to the second scenario, the “contact/no contact plan.” That means colleges can offer sports in fall that are non- or minimal contact, such as swimming and diving, and some golf and volleyball. 

The third scenario is the “contingency plan,” where sports are basically put on hold until the spring. 

CCCAA will make a decision on which plan to follow on July 17. 

“Keeping everyone safe is the main thing,” Cardone said. 

Impact on athletes

Both Cardone and NJCAA President Christopher Parker are eager for the return of athletics. Ending the spring sports season was “the most drastic thing I’ve ever had to do in my career,” Parker said. 

Cardone feels the same. 

“As a lifelong athlete, the last thing I could fathom was not having sports,” she said. “In the end, based on where we were and where we are with the pandemic, everyone at the end of the day understood it was a necessary evil.” 

Colleges have extended student athletes’ eligibility to play, but when sports are suspended, it can cause a lot of turmoil and uncertainty for student athletes, Parker said. 

“When a student athlete plays freshman year and finds out they have to go to another college, it’s a mental challenge,” Parker said. “If they’re living at home and saving money and playing sports, if they have to migrate outside that area, they’ll have to add costs.” 

Another downside: fewer competitions – and fewer opportunities to compile stats – mean fewer chances for two-year athletes to be recruited by four-year colleges and universities. 

Impact on colleges

Suspending sports can be particularly devastating for rural colleges, where student athletes make up anywhere from 5 percent to 40 percent of enrollment, Parker said. Those colleges with residence halls that house many student athletes may also lose housing revenue. 

But for some colleges, canceling athletics isn’t only a safety measure, it’s also a budget measure. Most community colleges don’t necessarily make much revenue from sporting events, Cardone said. And keeping athletic programs running is costly.

College of the Redwoods in California suspended its football and beach volleyball programs and cut nearly $500,000 from its athletics department budget. And Palomar College, also in California, has cut men’s and women’s golf, tennis and cross country to save money. 

On a positive note, community colleges may see an enrollment increase this fall, as students intending to compete at four-year institutions are changing paths. 

“We’re already seeing an uptick in student athletes’ interest levels in two-year colleges because they can stay at home, be safer and still play sports within their areas,” Parker said. 

“If people need to stay at the college or high school grads need to pivot and come to us instead of a four-year,” they’ll be welcomed,” Cardone said. “The more the merrier. The more opportunities we’re giving to student athletes, the better.”  

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.