Chris Massaro, Athletic Director at Middle Tennessee State University, recently spoke to the Rotary Club of Murfreesboro about getting his athletes back in action. He has been spending many weeks in meetings with commissioners from the various leagues, presidents of colleges, and other officials discussing how to get athletes moving again. And what this season will look like.
“We are working on an agreement to go forward and make it as safe as possible for athletes and fans,” said Massaro.
The group is working on protocols, as well as a plan on how the 2020 season will be played, all the time working with the moving target that is COVID-19. Greater flexibility is necessary, as the season may not start until December if there is a spike of the disease in October. And some schools may drop out if there is too much illness in their area.
“One thing I have learned during this pandemic,” said Massaro, “I have had some great plans steamrolled.”
Planning Protocols for all Facets of the Game Experience
Massaro, his team, and a loose confederacy of concerned parties are considering things like fan travel, as MTSU has about 100 fans travel with them wherever they go. Then they must consider the safety of cheerleaders and the band. Do they travel with the team? Do they even cheer on the team?
Staying much more regionalized in the travel this year, unless there are TV contracts to be met, is one part of the plan. MTSU is looking at playing more games that do not require air travel. This will be good for both safety, and the budget. Like other schools, businesses, and organizations, MTSU is going to have to tighten their belt due to lost revenues. They are looking at the possibility of a five to 10% budget cut.
Another area they have to consider is both the number of fans allowed to attend and how to handle concessions. Should there be no fans? Or maybe a third of capacity? He is looking into all concession options – no concessions, prepackaged food, or business as usual while following social distancing guidelines, and making sure servers have and wear the necessary personal protective gear.
“There is a strong will to play,” added Massaro, “I will be really surprised if it doesn’t occur.”
What Pre- Season Practice Will Look Like
MTSU Football is considering beginning practice sometime before June 15, although June will not be mandatory. His plan is to bring in 40 players initially. And everything will slow way down. For example, physicals. Every player must have one before they begin training. Traditionally physicals are done quickly in a big mass at one time. This year they will be done in batches.
Big changes are happening at Murphy Center and all training facilities on campus, too. Murphy Center will be closed down. Anyone entering the building will have to have their temperature taken. If anyone’s temperature gets past a certain point, they will get a wrist band for the day and not be allowed into the facility. Massaro will have all coaches and trainers wearing facial masks. They will try to work as much outside as possible, as outside is safer. Inside weight training will be spaced out over a wider area in Murphy Center.
“We are seeing if we can get enough test kits to test the whole team for COVID-19 every Wednesday before an away game,” said Massaro. “We do not want any of our players in quarantine off-site for 14 days.”
One of the other things that Massaro is looking at is bringing back basketball players to begin training. There will be only four players practicing at one time on the court, and no shared balls will be allowed. They will start with players who live locally.
A Village of Advisors and Constantly Changing Plans
Besides sports commissioners, college presidents, and other athletic directors, Massaro’s advisors include two doctors, the university’s director of compliance, his coaches, and administrators representing many areas on campus. He has also looked at models being created by the NHL, NBA, and NFL. He wants to know what works and what doesn’t. He knows that he has lots of time to plan in what he calls “pandemic time.”
“I know that 25 hours of planning can be destroyed eight hours later,” said Massaro. “Every question you ask, there are ten more below that…Communication will be the biggest thing.”
Above all else, he wants to bring sports back for the kids and the fans, safely.
“If you love college sports,” adds Massaro, “now is the time for positive support…Because now we’re in crisis, and we need the help…It will be a sad outcome if we lose sports.”