May 22, 2020
For the first time in months, Josh Whitman was able to give his staff, his student-athletes and Illinois fans positive information when it comes to the return of sports. On Friday, the University of Illinois Division of Intercollegiate Athletics announced its preparing to return Illini football and men’s basketball athletes and staffers back on campus in phases for voluntary training starting as early as June 3.
The plan to return has been weeks in the making and is part of a new phase Whitman believes the athletic department is entering. Since mid-March, Whitman has viewed the process of handling COVID-19 to be three phases long. The first phase was simply getting distance, meaning, helping student-athletes travel home and acclimating staff to working from home procedures. The second phase was all about learning, learning about the virus itself, keeping up with health protocols and speaking with experts about the best practices to move forward.
“I think we’re now entering what I imagine to be the third phase, which is the advance phase,” Whitman said in a Zoom conference Friday afternoon. “As we talk to our student-athletes, as we’ve talked to them regularly throughout this process, a couple weeks ago we transitioned our messaging and really started talking about the future and being encouraging about their activity and their mindset and understanding this environment we’re in right now is temporary. And that there is an opportunity here for all of us to come back to this campus when circumstances allow it and really hit the ground running and capitalize on the tremendous momentum that we felt we started to build during the most recent academic year.”
For the DIA to reach this ‘phase 3,’ they consulted with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District; Carle physicians; McKinley Health Center; SHIELD, the University’s committee tasked with developing testing protocols for the campus; and the Big Ten Conference.
The plan, led by the DIA’s sports medicine staff, includes an extensive process to continue to ensure the safety and health of all student-athletes and Illinois staff.
Football and men’s basketball athletes will return in waves of about 35-45 people, starting with returning players, followed by newcomers or transfers. Athletes who are at a higher risk of being infected or have been around infected people will return last. Support personnel like the sports medicine, strength and conditioning and facility/equipment staff will arrive before the student-athletes; but, coaches will plan to arrive after.
According to Randy Ballard, Illinois Director of Sports Medicine, around 72 hours before returning to campus, athletes will have to fill out a questionnaire to determine where they’ve been, if they’ve experienced symptoms or have been around people who have been infected. The student-athletes have a quarantine period in a resident hall once on campus and will be tested for the virus and the frontend and backend of the quarantine. Ballard then plans for weekly or biweekly testing for the near future.
To go even further, Whitman said after the quarantine process, they will advise players living off-campus to limit their apartments or houses to around four people.
“We all recognize that no matter what we do in our individual lives the risk of infection is always there,” Whitman said. Certainly we’re intending to do everything we know to do to keep that risk at an absolute minimum. But nothing we do is going to make an absolute guarantee that none of our student-athletes will be infected with the virus.”
“If that does happen we’ve made arrangements, we’ll be quarantining those student-athletes away from the rest, providing care for them for the minimum 14 days or beyond. We’ll have to work through as you would any other situation. Contact tracing, again all these procedures we’ve talked about will make that a little more palpable.”
Even after this process, the teams won’t be able to jump right into all-team activities. For football, the new Smith Center workout facility can hold around 50 athletes, but for now, only 6-8 players will be working out at a time. To limit contact further, those 6-8 athletes will typically be ones who live together and they will only workout with each other, at the same rack every day, with the same strength coach every day.
These voluntary activities will be limited to workouts and individual training, for the time being. Whitman said he doesn’t see any ball-involved activities, like passing or shooting, happening until at least after June. And even then, the athletic department is still working through ways to make those contact activities safe.
For now, the DIA plans to incorporate many new safety protocols for the summer workouts including daily temperature and pulse checks, regular questionnaires, equipment cleaning in between workout groups, limited staff sizes, a strict separation between floors in the Smith Center, and restrictions on certain facilities.
After a few weeks, Whitman and the DIA will assess how their plan has functioned, will make necessary adjustments, then hopefully start to allow the women’s basketball, volleyball and soccer teams to return starting the first week of July.
Following more assessments, Whitman then hopes to return the cross country team in mid-August, about a week before the anticipated start of fall semester.
For teams like men’s and women’s golf and men’s and women’s tennis who also compete in the fall, but are labeled as spring sports by the NCAA, returning over the summer will not be an option. While Whitman knows there will be disappointment from those teams and athletes, he feels confident it won’t hinder their motivation to keep progressing over the summer.
“We have a lot of sports that straddle that fall, spring season. … In reality, as we all know, being a high-major Division 1 athlete is a 12-month, all year proposition no matter what sport you’re in,” Whitman said. “We expect, and I think all of our student-athletes have demonstrated this in the conversations I’ve had, they’ve continued to stay very motivated over these last couple months. We expect that motivation will continue if not grow as we get closer to hopefully an official start with the fall semester. We know there’s going to be some frustrations by some sports who would say we’d like to be back.”
No matter when teams report back to campus, Whitman continued to emphasize participation being voluntary as also instructed by the NCAA. Choosing to participate in any summer activities will also not impact a student-athlete’s financial support from the DIA.
While summer activities are now falling in place, plans for the fall semester and fall sports are still very much up in the air. Whitman expects some decisions about the fall semester to be made in about 4-6 weeks.
However, if the university were to not allow in-person instruction in the fall, student-athletes would most likely lose their seasons, causing a major setback to their growth as athletes. It would also cause the DIA and the University of Illinois to lose a larger amount of money than they already have.
With all the confusion and doubt surrounding the return of college sports, Whitman hopes this summer plan will have brought a small bit of hope and clarity to the Illini community.
“If nothing else over these last couple months from me personally, and people I’ve spoken to, we’ve all realized the role that sports plays in our lives and broader society,” Whitman said. “They always say, ‘you never know what you had until you’ve lost it’. And over these last couple months, there’s been a void and there’s no debating that. If we can provide some little kernels of hope over the next several weeks, months that lead up to a culminating moment of a kickoff of a football game or the first serve of a volleyball match, to me that’s pretty exciting.”