The return of UA athletes to campus would signal a return to normalcy

Photo: Todd Gill, Fayetteville Flyer

The bandwagon for the return of college sports continues to move forward.

News broke by the Baton Rouge “Advocate” Thursday afternoon that the presidents and chancellors of the 14 members of the Southeastern Conference will vote May 22 on whether athletes can return to campus for voluntary workouts on June 1 or June 15.

This, of course, jives with the best-case scenario that Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek presented to the University of Arkansas Board of Trustees on May 4. The reopening of gyms under strict guidelines was part of Arkansas’ Phase 1 of reopening of business announced earlier this month by Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Hutchinson plans to announce his decision on when team sports can resume in the state on May 20 (Wednesday).

As Razorback fans we can only hope that positive news will come from the SEC’s vote and from Hutchinson’s announcement. All such decisions have to be looked at as fluid because of the highly infectious nature of the coronavirus which shut down all sports in the United States in mid March and how its containment can vary from state to state.

It’s a bit disturbing that there has been an uptick in coronavirus cases two days in a row in Arkansas on Wednesday and Thursday as reported in Hutchinson’s Thursday news conference. I’m not sure how much we should read into that, but it can’t be ignored either.

Hutchinson did say that uptick will keep the state in Phase 1 of the reopening rather than moving too quickly into Phase 2.

What I do like is that there is a growing sentiment that college sports need to be played this fall if at all possible around the nation despite the naysayers. I just hope it isn’t false bravado.

Safety does come first, but those who are healthy and are at a lower risk with the virus can’t be held back by those in our society who do fall into high-risk categories. Certainly we should protect those who are at high risk by personal distancing and the wearing of masks, and gloves when appropriate.

However, those in high-risk categories also must be responsible and make adjustments to their routine, while the more healthy return to their lives and careers. Life needs to move on before we become too comfortable huddling in our caves.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Science presented a series of guidelines for high school and college sports teams to return safely to athletics during the coronavirus pandemic.

Experts from the fields of concerning infection disease, pathology, family medicine, orthopedic surgery, and sports medicine collaborated on the guidelines.

The guidelines include:

  • Education for coaches and staff
  • Quarantine and screening guidelines, plus what to do if a team member tests positive
  • Advice for pre-participation screening during physicals
  • Guidelines for home life and safe living situations for student-athletes to limit the potential for disease spread
  • Tips on team meals, transportation, on-field hydration
  • Equipment disinfection
  • Best staff and management practices, such as continuing to conduct meetings remotely when possible
  • Guidelines for locker rooms and training rooms
  • Recommendations on vaccinations

In reading over the guidelines, it’s easy to see the challenges and hurdles facing team athletics at this time. Controlling those situations are almost impossible with student-athletes spread out around the region and nation.

One of the reasons SEC coaches want students-athletes on campus as early as June 1 is to help them follow guidelines such as the ones presented by UAMS.

Former Alabama and Texas A&M Hall of Fame coach Gene Stallings recently made the point that having the players together allows for programs to protect their players better.

“I’d rather have my players around me and our doctors and team facilities,” Stallings said, “rather than scattered around the country where we can’t take care of them.”

The healthcare, training, conditioning, and nutritional support that Power 5 student-athletes receive is truly second to none.

Now, make no mistake, coaches also want the players on campus so they can train in a manner that will enhance their performance on the field, but any student-athlete worth their salt wants to be in an environment where he or she can work toward improving their ability to perform as well as continue their studies even if it is still through virtual classes until the fall semester.

Unless there is an aggressive outbreak of new cases of the coronavirus between now and next Friday, I’d anticipate the SEC allowing athletes on campus for voluntary training next month. It might be as early as June 1 or as late as June 15, but I expect it to happen.

If it does, that will not only be good news to football fans around the SEC, but also the economy in each of cities that host an SEC campus. The return of those student-athletes to campus signals that other students will be joining them for classes soon.

While the University of Arkansas isn’t all that Fayetteville is, it is the vital cog in our economy, our society, and many other portions of our lives. The UA is a binding force in our city, in Northwest Arkansas, and really the entire state.

When the UA suspended on-campus classes just before spring break and did not allow students to return afterwards, it was a blow to Fayetteville. It was absolutely the right decision and the only one that could be made at that moment. However, the UA was never intended to be an on-line university.

Returning students to campus — even if it is only the student-athletes at first — would be terrific sign that things are returning to normal and that everything is going to be all right.