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After the NCAA canceled spring championships on March 12, universities across the country embarked on a long path toward fall sports. Conferences had nearly six months to unify, develop concrete plans and ensure safe participation in football and other Olympic sports.
As the Atlantic Coast Conference’s revised fall schedule nears, with seasons set to open the week of Sept. 7, numerous uncertainties still exist. Any uniformity and overarching NCAA power has evaporated as individual conferences prepare to take their own routes toward the fall season.
Two Power 5 conferences — the Big Ten and Pac-12 — have already canceled seasons. Football Championship Subdivision teams scratched fall competitions altogether. Others, such as the ACC and SEC, have kept anticipated start dates.
“‘Here’s the path to play in the fall,’” Director of Athletics John Wildhack said on July 30. “That trumped everything else … So we just want to get the chance to play.”
Syracuse finds itself balancing hope for college football with the reality that the NCAA canceled championships for six of its fall sports on Thursday. “It’s been quite an adventure,” Wildhack said, but it’s one that could ultimately end with the cancellation of Olympic sports seasons while football marches ahead.
Here’s what you need to know about the path to fall Olympic sports, as schedules, although many are unknown, begin in two weeks.
When the Orange strolled off the Greensboro Coliseum’s court following an 81-53 victory over North Carolina in the ACC men’s basketball tournament, it was the final game for a Syracuse team for five months. It was March 11, and the Orange’s quarterfinal against Louisville in less than 24 hours was uncertain. So were the NCAA and NIT postseason tournaments that following week.
The next day, conferences started canceling their respective tournaments and spring programs postponed their seasons. March Madness went from limited fans to fan-less to canceled outright, and spring teams began cleaning out their lockers after partway through the season.
For men’s lacrosse, that meant abandoning an undefeated start and No. 1 ranking. For softball, that meant not even playing a home game. If fall sports were postponed until the spring, NCAA president Mark Emmert said Thursday night, winter and spring sports would be the primary concern because their championships were canceled last season.
Even before the ACC released its modified football schedule on July 29, fall Olympic sports had already been altered. Three weeks earlier, the conference delayed Olympic sports games and competitions until Sept. 1, which impacted volleyball, men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s cross country and field hockey.
While schedules for those teams hadn’t been released yet, Syracuse had 14 games or exhibitions in August last year. Under the new ACC scheduling guidelines, those Olympic programs were limited to playing the minimum number of conference games mandated by the NCAA. For volleyball, that’s 10 matches. For soccer and field hockey, it’s just six games.
Schools can add other conference and nonconference opponents to their schedule as long as those schools’ medical guidelines and protocols align with the ACC’s, though those games won’t count toward ACC standings. Budgets for Olympic sports will likely be trimmed at all universities — at least for this season, if not longer.
Those six SU teams joined football in a gradual return to campus for voluntary offseason workouts starting in early June. As of July 30, all but cross country had returned to campus in some capacity, Wildhack said. Individual schools put together plans to bring back athletes for voluntary offseason workouts.
Upon returning to Syracuse, players were immediately tested and isolated until a negative COVID-19 test result returned. Masks were required in workout spaces, as was social distancing, and SU has been able to continue its workouts throughout the summer.
Protocols for football focused on ensuring training camp could begin on Aug. 6 and ultimately a full season could begin in mid-September while providing Syracuse the necessary amount of time for season preparations. But for Olympic sports, their seasons won’t look anywhere near their normal length — if they happen at all.
Where from here?
Over the next few weeks, several votes will take place that affect the fall sports seasons for Syracuse. By Aug. 21, the NCAA board of directors is expected to approve eligibility protections for fall athletes who had their seasons cut short or canceled altogether. It’s a similar step to what the NCAA took in March when it granted spring athletes an extra year of eligibility.
With that protection, more fall athletes will likely opt-out, especially Olympic sports players with drastically reduced seasons. So far, Syracuse defensive lineman Cooper Dawson is the only SU player to opt out of the 2020 season, but football head coach Dino Babers has said that more are “pending.”
The ACC could still vote to cancel fall sports all together, although that seems unlikely according to national reports.
“I’m particularly pleased for our student-athletes who have a clear path toward competing this fall,” Wildhack said in a statement after the ACC announced its updated football schedule. “It is incumbent upon all of us in the Syracuse Athletics Department to strictly adhere to the protocols we and the ACC have in place.”
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