CHAMPAIGN — Josh Whitman has held regular calls with the entirety of the Illinois student-athlete population and their families the past five months.
Tuesday night marked the 18th such call with plenty to discuss following the Big Ten’s announcement that all fall sports were being postponed in reaction to the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 400 student-athletes and family members took part in Tuesday’s call. Whitman and the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics staff answered questions for more than 90 minutes.
Some of those 75-plus questions Whitman estimated were asked Tuesday night don’t yet have clear answers.
The fluid nature of the ongoing pandemic means uncertainty reigns. Two big ones, the Illini athletic director said Wednesday during another Zoom call with local and state media, relate to postponing said fall sports to the spring and what the Big Ten’s decision means regarding eligibility.
A spring season for football, volleyball, soccer and cross-country at Illinois is a viable option in Whitman’s estimation. Working groups have already been formed to address it.
“I think what’s really important to me and I think to all of our athletic directors is making sure that is a meaningful, substantive opportunity,” Whitman said. “If we’re going to ask our student-athletes to use a year of their eligibility to participate, then it’s got to be worth it for them. It’s got to be something that has real meaning and value. That’s what we’re going to spend a lot of time trying to develop here in the days and weeks to come.”
Should Illinois and the Big Ten create a revised, meaningful spring season for those sports, the question of eligibility becomes moot. Should that not happen, the NCAA made a similar move Wednesday evening to what it did when spring sports were canceled in March.
“This past spring when the seasons were disrupted the NCAA did grant the institution autonomy to determine whether to extend a waiver in regard to eligibility and expand our financial aid cap for one year to provide that same aid to our returning seniors,” Whitman said.
Wednesday’s recommendation by the NCAA Division I council to its board of directors was similar. An extension of a student-athlete’s five-year window of competition will be granted along with an additional season of competition should 50 percent or less of the maximum allowable competitions in each respective sport not happen.
The idea of creating a new spring season for fall sports is something Whitman said had been discussed at least in concept leading up to the Big Ten’s postponement decision. The focus on that issue only now intensifies.
Whitman said he believes there is a path forward to successfully pulling off the fall-to-spring switch. What that will ultimately look like is to be determined, but Whitman is confident in Illinois and the Big Ten’s ability to create a workable plan.
“There are a lot of considerations, but the reality is any time you face adversity like this I think it’s really easy to say, ‘Oh, we can’t do that’ and to be dismissive,” Whitman said. “I think that in the most adverse situations is when you come out with some of the most creative ideas. We’re going to get the right people in the room and dive into the weeds on how we could make this work.
“We’ve got to be very thoughtful and mindful about the physical element of the game and how much we can realistically and fairly expect and ask of our student-athletes. It’s got to be a spring and a fall plan. It can’t be spring in isolation, and it can’t be fall in isolation.”
Creating a workable plan could be easier for the likes of volleyball and soccer. Weather considerations won’t play into when a “spring” volleyball season could start. Soccer typically plays a short spring season anyway, meaning a more robust schedule wouldn’t be a stretch. Cross-country, given those athletes’ participating in indoor and outdoor track, and football might be more of a challenge.
Whitman said he considered the decision to cancel spring sports five months ago the worst day of his career. Tuesday might have been 1b to March’s 1a. Actively working toward a plan to resolve the postponement of fall sports in addition to figuring out how winter and spring sports will operate, he said, was important.
“(Tuesday) night as I was wrapping up a long, hard day I was filled with a lot of different emotions,” Whitman said. “As I closed my eyes to go to sleep I thought, ‘OK, when we wake up tomorrow we’ve got to be ready to get back to work.’ I think there are people who spend a lot of time complaining about where we are. There are a lot of other people who get busy trying to develop solutions. We have to be in that latter group.”