CHAMPAIGN — Nearly three full months will have passed by the time the first Illinois student-athletes return to campus throughout next week after the NCAA canceled all remaining winter and spring sports and put a moratorium on all organized team activities in mid-March.
The nature of the COVID-19 pandemic also means Illinois can’t and won’t just open its doors wide for the entirety of its near 500 student-athletes.
Football and men’s basketball are first up in the return process next week. Women’s basketball, soccer and volleyball are set to follow in early July, with cross country tabbed for a mid-August arrival.
The decision to return to campus, though, is one Illinois student-athletes must make for themselves. Not just this summer, but into the fall should the next academic year begin as currently scheduled. Illini athletic director Josh Whitman described it as “absolutely voluntary.”
“It’s critical to us that our student-athletes understand that they have a choice to make as they do every single day,” Whitman said. “Certainly, that choice has never been more important than in this environment. We want them to know that it’s their decision when they return to campus and what fashion they want to return and that their financial support from the athletic program is not at risk contingent on that decision.”
The last of that is the crux of the issue. Voluntary activities in college athletics are often more “voluntary.” The quotes are in place for a reason. The idea of voluntary often is blurred with mandatory, which is something Whitman didn’t shy away from addressing.
In this case, voluntary does, in fact, actually mean voluntary. That message will be continually reiterated in writing and through various meetings with the Illinois student-athlete population.
“We all know that in college athletics sometimes the term ‘voluntary’ can become a bit of a term of art, but in this case it truly is the order of the day,” Whitman said. “We want to be sure that they understand their best interest comes first, and they have to make those decisions for themselves. Certainly, we anticipate and hope the vast majority of them will be back, but that will ultimately be their decision.”
The feedback Whitman said has been received from student-athletes hasn’t been couched in reservations or concern about the return to campus plan. The way Whitman said he would characterize the feelings is a combination of enthusiasm and excitement.
“If anything, (Thursday’s) call was hard for me because I wanted to be able to tell them all we were going to open the doors wide open and they could all come flooding back to campus,” Whitman said about the mass call with Illinois student-athletes before the return to campus plan was publicly announced Friday.
“I know for some of them, they were ready for that message, and it was disappointing to hear we weren’t going to be in position to facilitate that mass return in a short period of time,” Whitman continued. “My sense is they’re excited to be back. I think all of us obviously long for some return to normalcy. We’ll work through those situations with individual students (with concerns) if they present themselves, but right now we’re excited about the group.”
The idea of a voluntary return and voluntary resumption of team workouts on campus is one Whitman said has been communicated to all Illinois coaches and staff. The reaction from that group, he said, hasn’t changed in the past several months after the pandemic hit and forced a halt to all sports in March.
“We need to understand that this is a different time,” Whitman said. “We need to continue to allow people to make choices that are in their own best interests and in the best interests of their health and the health of the people around them. … The coaches, to their credit and I can’t say enough good things about them, from the first day that we started having immediate and dramatic changes as a result of the pandemic back in March they have been quick to set aside personal agendas, to set aside their competitive juices (and) to really prioritize our community’s health, their health and our student-athlete’s health.”
Whitman said he does not expect many student-athletes to not participate in the return to campus this summer. Those that do will continue to be supported from a distance by the athletic department. That includes making available third-party resources outside of the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics for student-athletes to utilize should they have concerns that voluntary isn’t really voluntary.
Whitman said he’s comfortable that pressure on student-athletes to return to campus and to their teams won’t come from administrators, coaches or staff. The idea it could come from within the student-athlete body — truly, the definition of peer pressure — is something Whitman said could be possible.
“I’m sure all of us have experienced some level of that in our own lives,” Whitman said. “I know just walking through the neighborhood where I live, you see some people who have chosen to be pretty together in their driveways or in their street. You see other people who are bundled up in masks and gloves. Everybody, I think, has to learn how to navigate a little on their own in this situation and make decisions in their own best interest.
“In any moment of challenge — and certainly this virus is no exception — there are teaching moments. I think it’s important for us to really encourage our student-athletes to be independent, to be strong and to not be afraid to express their voice and their opinion even if that differs form the voice or opinion around them. We’ve got to do a good job as leaders of effectively communicating that to them. At the end of the day, that setting in terms of teammate to teammate, they’re probably going to have to stand up for themselves if they feel like they’re in a different place than some of the others they’re talking to.”