Winter and spring collegiate sports completely shut down their seasons in the middle of March. North Central University and other universities around the United States have cautiously started their fall and winter sports. Players and coaches are learning strategies on the fly to safely play the sports that they love. North Central University has enforced regulations that each athlete has to follow whether the sport is performed outdoors or indoors. Each athlete must download the Sway app and complete a daily questionnaire on the app to make sure everyone is feeling healthy and has a healthy temperature. The Sway app asks if they are experiencing any of the symptoms that are related to COVID-19 and the school provides stations around campus to have their temperature checked by simply scanning the forehead of the athlete. In addition to the app, each athlete is required to wear a mask while they play their sport. There have been mixed reactions from the athletes.
Basketball players are accustomed to full team practices without being conscious about the health of their teammates. There’s a consistent worry that if multiple people on a team get sick the season could get shut down like last year. North Central’s men’s and women’s basketball teams started conditioning workouts and have already felt the restraints of the pandemic. They have been limited to only six people in a gym while being required to wear a mask and social distance. Basketball is a contact sport making this arrangement an inconvenience. The limit on the number of players in a gym will affect the development of the athletes because they won’t be able to have a real game feel. Sophomore basketball player Hannah Grubbs says, “It’ll probably hurt how good we are as a team because we won’t get to play full scrimmages and 5 on 5.”
Basketball, like many other sports, has an important team intangible that they must have, the players must have a good relationship with one another. It’s harder to pass a ball to a stranger or play defense as a team if the team doesn’t get along. Though there aren’t full team practices, the players have managed to keep team continuity strong, North Central basketball player Griffin Tull shares “We have our group workouts but we also have study hall and meetings together so we are always around each other. Also Wednesday mornings we work out on the field with the whole team. And that is easily the best day of the week when it comes to workouts.”
North Central’s volleyball team plans to have their season but in a different time of the year. Normally, players would come to campus in the fall before the non-athletes and have preseason practices then start their season later in the fall. This year they will play their season in spring. Not only that, the season will be shortened, “Our games start the first week in March, then we will play 11 matches because if we cap it at 11 we still have eligibility for years down the road,” said Faith Ooms, the head coach of the volleyball team. This is a bittersweet feeling for the volleyball players because they have the chance to use this year for development at the price for not playing for a conference championship this year. Volleyball player Karlee Martinez said, “I do plan to use my extra year. The idea does excite me because we aren’t losing a year, we are given an extra year to play. I think that the shortened season is sad but it gives our team time to focus on becoming better for ourselves and to focus on being less competitive in ways of playing to win and turning that into playing for our teammates and for God, which is a much bigger purpose.”
The athletes at North Central are kept safe by the great training staff available to them. Athletic trainer Tom Smith said, “North Central is the first NCAA school to have an agreement with Mayo Clinic to receive sports medicine services.” The school also gets advice on how to manage the health of the athletes. The athletic director for North Central, Travis Whipple, said, “The Minnesota Department of Health gives them suggestions on how to best prevent the spread of COVID-19.” Those suggestions are given to the athletic director and shared with the trainers on campus, Tom Smith and Brandi BlueArm, who are responsible for monitoring social distancing and mask-wearing around campus. The athletic director has also been working on a plan to safely let crowds back at sporting events when they come back in the winter. Whipple said, “The most likely plan is that we allow half of the capacity at sporting events.”
Large attendances and loud crowds are important parts in making sporting events memorable, however North Central isn’t known for having a great atmosphere at these events. Even before the pandemic, empty seats were normal here, “For some home games there were more fans for the opposing team than ours, there was a core group of fans who went, and other than that it was empty,” Grubbs said. Head coach of the North Central baseball team, David Babcock said, “In recent years there have been barely double digits in attendance.” Teams with good fans often have crowds that scream and shout with one voice to make for an intimidating atmosphere. North Central Student Haleigh Stratton said, “I wish we had set cheers for NCU. I think that would help unify fans. It would help if we had a school song at least.” The problem could possibly be deeper, the students don’t know when games are. I talked to North Central student Roman Sawczak and he said, “I feel like I have to dig through my emails to find out when the next sporting event is.” The school doesn’t advertise the games around campus, so for a non- athlete, it’s difficult to track when games are unless they have friends on the team. The athletes are used to having a small home attendance and if the season this winter gets played it won’t be a large adjustment to play with less fans in attendance.
Fans are what makes sports great, they remember great plays, but the fan reaction is what makes the moment special. Supporters of the Minnesota Vikings recently experienced the Minneapolis miracle, the play where the Vikings scored a 61-yard touchdown pass to snag a victory in the face of defeat against the New Orleans Saints in 2018. But what they remember along with the play is the reaction it caused by every fan watching. A longtime Vikings supporter, Eli Okerstrom said, “I remember where I was, screaming with my friends as Diggs caught the ball.” Fans of professional teams in Minnesota have been deprived of live sporting entertainment and have to settle with knowing that the only way they’ll consume sports is through a screen. After the outbreak in March, all American sports paused their leagues to find a way to safely resume playing. This break has changed fan attention to the sports, long time Twins and Timberwolves fan, Sawyer Johnson shared, “For me, I haven’t watched as many sports as before just because of the gap but the fan reactions and crowd noise for big shots and big plays has definitely been less hype than it used to be.” Without the fans in attendance, watching the games are harder for fans who aren’t attached to the team or sport because the excitement goes down without the cheers from the stands. Johnson later said, “COVID-19 is really a test to how much you love the sport and basketball has been the only sport I have continued to watch.” If fans aren’t allowed back in stadiums, the only people who would be watching from home would be people who genuinely love the sport or the team. It seems this pandemic exposes that some people only appreciated sports for the feeling of being with other fans and it wasn’t about the sport itself.
COVID has had an enormous impact on sports and it’s continuing each day. Athletes are adjusting to the new health precautions to be able to play the sport they love. Fans around Minnesota are also adjusting how they enjoy sports through different mediums. Though we’re in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, nothing will kill the love and passion athletes and supporters continue to feel while playing and watching these sports.