CHAMPAIGN — The Big Ten’s decision last week to postpone all fall sports was a sudden stop to the immediate preparation underway for Illinois football, volleyball and soccer and what was about to begin for Illini cross-country.
But practices continued for the Illinois volleyball and soccer teams last week. Cross-country had a similar plan once its athletes exited the requisite quarantine period. The Illini football team will resume some iteration of a practice schedule when the team returns in conjunction with the start of classes this coming Monday.
The Big Ten has decided it isn’t safe enough to compete. Practicing on your own campus? That still has the green light.
“I think that we’ve demonstrated here over the summer months we can have physical activities,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said. “We can have training. We can even have practices and do it in a way that looks out for the health and safety of our students.”
The concerns from the Big Ten weren’t about what was happening on individual campuses. The halt in a competitive fall season was more borne out of what travel and playing against other teams would mean in the overall picture of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Discrepancies in level of testing and uncertainties in contact tracing were also issues that were raised.
“Those are brought to bear more when you’re talking school-to-school rather than in your own school,” Whitman said. “We feel comfortable here within our own institutions and the protocols that we have, and we feel confident we can keep moving forward with the activities we’ve already undertaken and some additional practices as the remainder of our student-athletes return to campus here in a couple weeks.”
There is not a current timetable for a return to competition in the Big Ten. A postponed fall turns the attention to salvaging winter sports and devising a plan to play as many fall sports in the spring as possible. There’s not a specific benchmark to hit amid the pandemic either. Just questions to answer, from testing protocols to contact tracing.
Illinois is ahead of the game on testing, with its own saliva test athletes were set to start receiving on a daily basis as the competition season neared. That test would have accompanied the two weekly nasal swab tests required by the Big Ten. Saliva testing became a national story this past weekend with an NBA-backed test developed at Yale receiving emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.
“In talking with Chancellor (Robert) Jones, I think there were some concerns around the availability and access to testing on our different campuses,” Whitman said. That lines up with reports Monday that Michigan did not have the capacity to test all students regularly, which is the plan on the Illinois campus as a whole. “Certainly we feel really good about what we’ve been able to develop here at the University of Illinois,” Whitman continued. “I understand it is not necessarily the same everywhere else, and we want to be in a place where we have a consistent access point on the testing front.”
Consistent contact tracing measures are another area Whitman said had to be more clearly defined for a return to competition. Based on the level of testing available and current contact tracing protocols even a single positive case could have sidelined a significant portion of a team if games were played this fall.
“‘How do you play football in that environment?’ is a tough question we had a hard time answering,” Whitman said.
That contact tracing protocols differ from state to state in the Big Ten’s 11-state footprint muddled the issue.
“My understanding is here in Illinois we just recently changed our guidelines of what constitutes a ‘close contact,’” Whitman said. “Until just the last week or so, I think we were following federal guidelines. If you were within six feet of someone for more than 15 minutes, that was a close contact. Just a week or so ago in the context of athletics, of sports, they said any contact counted as a close contact.
“That obviously sent off some warning bells for us. That was a major source of concern. I know the other 10 states where Big Ten schools are located had varying guidelines as well. That is certainly something we’ve got to work through as we head through the fall and start to target that spring return.”