The NCAA announced Wednesday it would let each of its divisions make their own choice about fall sports championships in 2020. The deadline to make a decision was set for Aug. 21. Within hours, NCAA Division II and Division III both voted to cancel fall championships this year because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The move could have major ramifications for conferences across the country, including the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Last week, the RMAC Presidents Council voted to begin fall sports with a conference-only schedule. Teams in the 15-member conference, including Fort Lewis College, could begin fall practice Aug. 24 with competition to begin Sept. 18.
But that decision was announced last week before the NCAA Division II Presidents Council made its decision Wednesday to cancel all postseason championships for fall sports such as cross-country, football, soccer and volleyball. The RMAC Presidents Council agreed to have yet another vote on its fall season after a meeting at 9 a.m. Thursday, as the RMAC expected a big announcement from the NCAA Board of Governors early this week.
“It was an extremely difficult decision, but I truly think it was one made in the best interest of athletes, schools and community health and welfare,” said FLC athletic director Brandon Leimbach. “Every college athlete has the goal to compete for championships. This fall, there isn’t that opportunity. It’s disappointing, but Division II finally made a decision to move forward, and I think our coaches are actually relieved a decision has been made. Now, the RMAC and other D-II conferences can make informed decisions on how to proceed for 2021. We can now put the emphasis on winter and spring sports that lost out on their championships last season.”
The Division II Presidents Council noted it did not believe holding competitions as planned or a postponement of play until spring would be feasible.
“After reviewing and discussing the Board of Governors’ directives, the Division II Presidents Council made the difficult decision that holding fall championships in any capacity was not a viable or fiscally responsible option for Division II,” Sandra Jordan, chancellor of South Carolina Aiken and chair of the council, said in a news release. “This decision was discussed very thoroughly, and I assure you, it was not made lightly. It is important to note that fall student-athletes will be given eligibility-related flexibility to allow them championship opportunities in the future. As we move forward, we will continue to focus on providing the best championships experience for our winter and spring student-athletes who were not afforded those opportunities at the beginning of this pandemic.”
Athletes in fall sports who do not play will be granted an extra year of eligibility, just as spring sports athletes who also had their seasons canceled when the new coronavirus quickly shut down sports in March. Fall athletes will only be allowed the extra eligibility if they play fewer than 50% of the maximum contests in 2020. If the RMAC moves forward with a conference schedule for fall sports in 2020, athletes will not gain the additional eligibility if they play more than half the season.
Major Division I conferences continue to move forward with plans to hold fall sports with several alterations, including conference-only play in most leagues. In mid-July, conferences urged the NCAA Board of Governors for more time before making a decision on fall championship tournaments and events.
The NCAA Board of Governors met Tuesday and developed the plan to let each division make its own decision.
“First and foremost, we need to make sure we provide a safe environment for college athletes to compete for an opportunity to play in NCAA championships,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement. “A decision based on the realities in each division will provide clarity for conferences and campuses as they determine how to safely begin the academic year and the return to sports.”
The NCAA will require any athletes that compete in the fall to be tested for COVID-19 no more than 72 hours before a competition. Testing will be costly for schools, especially those not in the Power Five conferences of Division I.
“The first and most important consideration is whether sports can be conducted safely for college athletes,” Michael V. Drake, chair of the board and University of California system president, said in a news release. “Each division must examine whether it has the resources available to take the required precautions given the spread of COVID-19.”
Also in collegiate athletics, the NAIA and the NJCAA moved all fall sports to the spring. Now, only NCAA Division I is still considering fall championships.
As of last week, eight of the 24 Division II conferences had already suspended fall sports until at least the spring. With no fall championships to contend for, that number is sure to rise.
Fort Lewis College athletes and coaches will await to see if they will still have a conference season for fall athletics after the RMAC Presidents Council meets again Thursday morning.
“I’ve been in game plan mode breaking down film as if we’re playing,” said FLC first-year head football coach Darrius G. Smith. “It’s hard for anybody to make decisions right now. Kids across the country right now have these decisions to make, too. They have to decide whether to attend, to play, to opt out. I don’t think there’s ever been a time in college football where a student-athlete has had so many options presented to them while at the same time trying to pursue their love for a game and try to achieve their college degree.
“This has been kind of a runabout thing the last three or four months, but we’re in uncharted territory across the board.”