Pandemic challenges routine of college athletics

Routine has always been a grounding force for athletes and athletics. It’s something a team or an individual player could rely upon. Having a routine helps with nerves. It gives players confidence and a feeling of control.

Even those of us who like to think we don’t have routines, live by them every day even if we won’t acknowledge it. We are creatures of habit as the old saying goes.

However, the novel coronavirus pandemic has thrown all of our lives for a loop. Many of our routines and habits have been altered or changed completely. Things we’ve never worried much about before have come to dominate our lives.

Even as our economy and society begins to take steps forward in reopening, we face so many changes and so many decisions just to do things that we did without even thinking about just a matter of weeks ago.

Some are calling such precautions as masks and gloves a new normal, while others think they are just a hassle that offer very limited protection for us or our neighbors. I try to be careful when I’m out, and I have become a zealous hand washer, but I’m still adjusting to our new etiquette, where handshakes and hugs are verboten.

Like everyone else I’ve become accustomed to Zoom meetings and other virtual aspects of our new norms, but I have to say that this necessity of change truly hit home to me earlier this week in watching the Zoom teleconference Arkansas athletics director Hunter Yurachek conducted with the media concerning the return of student-athletes to the UA campus for strength and conditioning training.

The return will be done in phases starting June 8 and will be completed by early July when the final groups of athletes are allowed to return.

All athletes must undergo a “rigorous” physical conducted by the UA’s department of health before they can begin training. The athletes won’t automatically be tested for the coronavirus unless they are showing symptoms or are coming to the area from a CDC-designsted hotspot, which is what the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UA Medical Sciences have suggested.

Athletes will practice social distancing during these workouts which will be conducted in groups of 16, and meetings with coaches will still be of a virtual nature, using a computer program that’s similar to Zoom.

Arkansas’ athletics training staff will follow all procedures outlined by UAMS in terms of disinfecting and cleaning. Yurachek, who has a son who is a walk-on linebacker and a son who is a graduate assistant with the Razorbacks, has assured players and their parents that the UA is taking every precaution possible to make it safe for the players to return and train on campus.

“We can’t eliminate the risk totally, but we can mitigate and minimize the risk and the exposure,” Yurachek said to the media Wednesday. “We have a plan to handle that. And all we can do is mitigate their risk to COVID-19.”

What became abundantly clear during the course of the Zoom call with Yurachek is that nearly everything about the upcoming college sports season is going to more challenging for all involved — administrators, staff, coaches, players, and fans.

Just as we have had to make major and minor adjustment to our everyday lives, those that run college athletics are making similar adjustments to the way they will coach, prepare, and train their athletes for the forthcoming season.

If college coaches, staff, and administrators have ever earned their salaries it is going to be this year as they all work with a new and evolving playbook to make football and all the other sports work despite the hurdles that are before them.

Yurachek commented on how athletics has always been a regimented and unwavering process, where the rules were the rules year after year. However, he said everyone is having to adjust to the fluid nature of life with the coronavirus, and how everyone is going to have to be flexible because there is no manual for best practices for running an athletics program during a pandemic.

At the moment, Yurachek said the UA is planning on the football season to go as scheduled while making contingency plans for everything including reduced and physically distanced seating to almost any other change that can be reasonably imagined.

Though there is no doubt Yurachek could have disclosed much more about contingency plans that he, his staff, and the SEC are considering, he wisely kept most of his comments focused on the return of student athletes rather than wading into particulars that might change over the course of the next few weeks and months.

Yurachek did pinpoint early August as a general time when plans for what attending a Razorback game will be like for fans in terms of seating, getting on campus, entering and exiting the stadium and purchasing concessions. It’s all going to be different until a vaccine is readily available to the general public whenever that happens.

Personally, I’m excited that student-athletes will be allowed to begin training and conditioning for the season. It is the first step for the return of the Razorbacks to athletic competition, something I had truly taken for granted in the past.

I’m enthused about this season and the beginning of the Sam Pittman era of Arkansas football. The Razorbacks have an outstanding and challenging schedule. With coaching changes at Ole Miss and Mississippi State, there is an opportunity for Arkansas to make a quick move from the bottom of the SEC West to the middle this season.

The challenges of playing football during the pandemic could act to level the playing field a bit in the SEC or it might just make the strong even stronger. Hopefully it is the latter, but we’ll just have to wait and see.