After making the decision earlier this semester to suspend fall sports until at least Jan. 1, citing the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its commitment to the health of student athletes, the MIAA announced Oct. 1 tentative plans to go ahead with a winter sports season.
The decision, though, seems to be one based more on increasing public pressure to ignore health experts and play sports than it does with the safety of student athletes and coaches — one of the same guiding principles the MIAA claims to have followed in making its original decision earlier this fall.
“The health and well-being of MIAA student-athletes, coaches, administrators, and our communities continues to be the Association's top priority,” said Pittsburg State President Steve Scott, the chairperson of the MIAA CEO Council, in the association’s Aug. 13 announcement.
Despite what Division I conferences like the SEC and the Big 10 have done over the last several months, and despite the pseudo-seasons that Division II schools like Missouri Western and Scott’s own Pitt State are trying to cobble together now, the MIAA’s decision to suspend fall sports was the right one to make.
And while the MIAA hasn’t fully committed to going ahead with winter sports, noting in the Oct. 1 announcement that it would “continue to monitor NCAA, CDC, and local government guidance,” the league still plans on starting the men’s and women’s basketball season in mid-November, a season, or at least a start time, that the league should pump the brakes on.
If it wasn’t safe in August for student athletes, and perhaps more urgently for coaches and administrators more likely to be killed by COVID-19, how could it be safe now? Those health concerns — which were purportedly at the forefront of the MIAA’s August decision regarding fall sports — should only be further amplified now, with new daily COVID-19 cases continuing to trend higher than they were two months ago.
Additionally, if the threat of the virus was pertinent enough to cancel sports like football and cross county in early August — competitions that take place outdoors, where distancing is inherently easier — it’s not logical to conclude that basketball is somehow safer. There is nothing about a sport that pins five closely guarded athletes against five closely guarded athletes in a gym for 40 minutes of intense competition that seems at all COVID-19 friendly.
It wasn’t the consistently high number of new COVID-19 cases in the region that gave the MIAA CEO Council pause, nor was it the realities of a sport like basketball, which simply don’t allow for social distancing or much else that might help prevent the spread of the virus.
Instead, the only thing that seemed to trip the council up was the updated NCAA’s testing requirements, which would require basketball players, coaches and other personnel in daily contact with players to get tested for COVID-19 three times a week — a rate that probably won’t be feasible for Division II programs until saliva testing, or other low-cost testing measures, are more widely available. Nowhere in its 400-word press release did the MIAA mention the health or safety of its athletes or coaches, which seems on-par with the decision the association came to.
The MIAA’s decision — which is perhaps a liberal use of the word “decision,” since the Association’s approach amounts more to waiting and seeing than any real conclusion — is, of course, a welcomed sight for most of Northwest’s winter sport athletes, particularly those who had their shot at a championship taken away by the pandemic last spring.
But the same athletes aren’t likely to pay the ultimate price if the MIAA’s season goes awry, if an outbreak spreads from a league game to a team practice to the classroom of an at-risk faculty member.
No one wants this season to be canceled or postponed. No one wants to take another season away from these student athletes. Still, no one can deny the actualities of this pandemic.
Perhaps cases in the region will subside or a vaccine will emerge. Perhaps cheaper, faster testing will become more widely available. Perhaps the MIAA can find a safe, feasible route to a winter sports season.
But if the league can’t, and if it really values the health and safety of its players and coaches, it’ll have to pull the plug on a season that probably shouldn’t be happening. And it’s clear the MIAA CEO Council — a group of University presidents and leaders from Division II schools across the region — is somehow unprepared to make that call.