The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference announced Monday that it has adopted a set of guidelines for resuming athletic competition, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Canisius and Niagara are members of the 11-school MAAC.
The eight-point plan was unanimously recommended Friday to the conference’s council of presidents by the MAAC’s committee on athletic administration.
“The conversation about how we would resume sports and how it’s unfolding is very fluid, but the idea behind this was to set guiding principles, to allow those to help frame the conversation,” Canisius athletic director Bill Maher said. “We don’t know what the answers are, or where we’re heading now, but these should help guide us.”
The MAAC did not give a date or a timeline for the resumption of sports; the MAAC announced March 12 that it canceled all winter championships and spring sports competition because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Canisius closed its residence halls and shifted to online learning, while Niagara also moved to online learning for the remainder of its semester.
NCAA president Mark Emmert said last week on the NCAA’s Twitter channel that if a college or university doesn’t re-open in the fall with students on campus, then it would not host intercollegiate sports.
“If you don’t have students on campus, you don’t have student-athletes on campus,” Emmert said. "That doesn’t mean it has to be up and running in the full normal model, but you’ve got to treat the health and well-being of the athletes at least as much as the regular students. So if a school doesn’t reopen, then they’re not going to be playing sports. It’s really that simple.”
Neither school has announced if it will return to in-person learning for the fall semester, but Maher said the conference’s focus is to have students return to campus for the fall semester.
“But it’s going to be outside forces that will dictate when and how we do that,” Maher said. “Within understanding what those are, how can we make that a safe and reasonable process for the student-athletes and for the fans who attend the games?”
Most notable in the plan is that the MAAC acknowledged the possible necessity that student-athletes and personnel may be required to be tested for Covid-19 or an antibody immunity in order to participate in sports. Maher said that funding for testing at Canisius has not been determined, while Niagara athletic director Simon Gray said Covid-19 testing will be for students, as well.
"With athletics, though, (funding for testing) is to be determined,” Gray said. “It will depend on ongoing recommendations, where the funding comes from, all of that would be developed. I don’t know that there’s a designated fund right now for those things."
The MAAC also said safety and communication protocols will be necessary to inform people who have been in contact with someone who tests positive.
The MAAC outlined in its first point that “the safety of student-athletes, coaches and staff should guide us as we look to reengage in athletic activities and competition. A measured approach to the startup of fall and winter sports should be taken so we don’t end up having to shut down sports again in the fall.”
Nonconference scheduling also will be impacted, and could be limited to regional opponents for fall sports, given that different parts of the country could be hot spots for Covid-19. Eight of the MAAC’s 11 schools in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, for example, are within a two-hour drive of New York City.
“There’s 11 different counties and three different states we’re dealing with, and things are going to be dictated for each of us on a different schedule,” Maher said. “But there’s thoughts on a commitment to doing this together, from a conference standpoint.”
Both Maher and Gray said that Canisius and Niagara have started the process of scheduling for their fall and winter sports. Canisius’ fall schedules will be shortened and regionalized. Niagara is also considering regionalizing its opponents.
"This is an area we found could make sense, in many ways,” Gray said. “It’s also from a time-frame and a financial perspective, that playing regional opponents makes sense. Contracts could already be in place for different sports next year, for winter and spring, too. It’s a logical recommendation to think that regional opponents make sense."
The issue Niagara and Canisius face is the same as what its potential opponents could face on their own campuses: how they are handling the resumption of sports and campus activities because of Covid-19.
"Conferences around the country are having the same discussions about the resumptions of activities, and what it’s going to look like in a conference and in the region," Gray said.
The MAAC forecasted that because Covid-19 could remain a public health issue as the fall sports season begins, enhanced protocols for disinfecting practice and training sites, athletic facilities and transportation will be necessary, and that the possibility of a “second wave” of the virus could impact sports during the 2020-21 school year, which could necessitate schedule changes and postseason formats.
Conference scheduling will be prioritized, but there could be disruptions to fall and winter sports schedules, which conference members will cooperate to accommodate, without seeking a competitive or financial advantage over other MAAC schools, the plan said.
Ultimately, the MAAC ceded that state and local authorities will have control over the startup of public events, and the MAAC must manage attendance limitations and make decisions on event sites, as dictated by government guidelines.
“The MAAC membership is aware that the evolving nature of the COVID-19 pandemic will require flexibility with the response to challenges posed to higher education including college athletics,” MAAC Commissioner Richard Ensor said in a release. “The principles adopted by the MAAC will guide the conference’s response to these challenges and reflect the member schools’ commitment to work jointly in resuming athletic competition as soon as possible.”