CEDAR RAPIDS — You’ve got to have hope. If you don’t have that, you have nothing.
That, as much as anything, was why the American Rivers Conference released a statement last week via its Presidents Council that the NCAA Division III league intends to conduct a fall sports season. All of its sports seasons.
College athletics, athletics as a whole, are in tremendous flux because of a COVID-19 pandemic that canceled winter championships and spring seasons.
“We are in a lot better shape than a lot of the states around us, namely Illinois,” said American Rivers Conference Commissioner Chuck Yrigoyen. “So we just felt like we wanted to show commitment and a piece of good news for our returning student-athletes and for the incoming freshmen. We just want them to know that we’re looking at 2020-21 as a chance to get back on the field and not, right now, (say) that we don’t think it’s going to happen.
“Is a lot of it symoblic? Yeah. As unpredictable as everything is right now, it’s a statement of optimism. It’s not a statement of fact. We have no idea how things are going to look.”
The American Rivers Conference has nine schools, eight in Iowa: Coe, Central, Buena Vista, Dubuque, Loras, Luther, Simpson and Wartburg. Nebraska Wesleyan also is a member.
Fall sports in Division III are men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s soccer, volleyball and football. Yrigoyen said the ARC is in “prep mode” right now, has gathered documentation from the American College Health Association and the Collegiate Council of Sports Medicine about the possible reopening of campuses and how that might look. The Sports Science Institute of the NCAA will be a major guiding force in whether sports will be possible.
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“We are concentrating on the prep factor,” Yrigoyen said. “What are the expectations when our schools travel to our other schools in the conference? Likewise, what are going to be their expectations when other teams show up at our campuses? Then, hopefully, maybe just being able to have some level of communication and commitment from the conferences around us.”
He mentioned the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin and the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference specifically. Schools from those leagues make up the bulk of non-conference competition for their American Rivers Conference counterparts.
“We do have an Upper Midwest Commissioners Association group that talks regularly,” Yrigoyen said. “We’re hoping we can work together as a group to have some common understanding about what things are going to look like if and when our teams are able to travel for non-conference competition. Obviously conference competition is going to be tricky enough. Then when you get into non-conference play, crossing state lines and that kind of thing, the ballgame changes.”
Yrigoyen said it is possible the American Rivers Conference could play fall sports as strictly a conference endeavor. That’s even if the NCAA ends up canceling its fall sports championships.
He said theoretically the ARC and conferences he previously mentioned could put together a sort of regional championship instead. He is adamant that pushing fall sports to the spring is not feasible.
“This is just me, but I don’t see how we make that happen. Not in Division III,” he said. “Athletic training facilities, we just have all these different things to consider. I don’t see how it happens.”
There are all kinds of moving parts here, obviously. Things could change in a second.
“The things we are looking for right now is the medical information, to get that solidly in place, and then the next step would be hearing from the NCAA what they are thinking about for fall championships,” Yrigoyen said. “Then the next step after that would be for us to think about what could drastically alter our conference competition in the fall. Get an outbreak, you miss out on two conference games or something, what would that all mean?”
You have heard how important conducting a football season, in particular, is to Division I schools just because that sport helps pay the bills for other athletics. Some D-I schools already have announced they are cutting sports because of a loss of revenue, not having a NCAA college basketball tournament a major factor there.
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In Division III, all athletics are so important because they affect enrollments of schools, most of which are small and private.
“If you talk to any of our presidents, I don’t think they would dodge that question in the slightest. Enrollment is huge,” Yrigoyen said. “When all of our campuses went virtual, the amount of money lost, especially from room and board having to be reimbursed ... So now if somebody was going to come to one of our schools and there aren’t any fall sports. If they want to get started with their college careers, maybe they go the two-year route now. Or maybe they just decide to take a gap year and come back later. That’s great for them, but if a projected freshman class is this number and now is that number, that’s bad. You lose 25 admission spots, 25 tuition and room-and-board paying kids, that’s a big financial hit. A big, big hit.”
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