With 156 postponed or cancelled sporting events, five seasons abruptly upended and over 215 student athletes affected, COVID-19 has left its mark on Portland State athletics. Where do the Vikings go from here?
“There’s no playbook for this,” said PSU Athletics Director Valerie Cleary. She and her staff were in Boise, Idaho for the men’s basketball championship tournament back in March when the call was made to cancel their quarter-final game only hours before tip-off. “When we got sent home we thought, okay this will last a couple weeks, but we’ll be back,” Cleary said.
That was almost six months ago. Since then, the Big Sky conference made the decision to postpone all fall sports, affecting cross country, soccer, volleyball and football at PSU until the spring of next year. Over 50% of teams within the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) have done the same.
Coaches, trainers, doctors, athletes and staff across PSU’s athletic department have felt the impact of COVID-19 and its trail of uncertainty. The women’s tennis team was forced to cancel 12 matches, more than half the players’ season. “The players really felt like the rug was pulled out from under them,” said Kyle Russell, head tennis coach at PSU. “They were so excited for the back half of our season so the reaction was, predictably, utter disappointment.”
“It’s been really difficult. Everyone on my team has been playing since they were three or four years old. With everything going on, it seems like a frivolous thing to be so upset about sports, but it’s really tough,” said Emily Rees, a sophomore who plays under Russell on the tennis team.
PSU has 26 international student athletes that come from 15 different countries, which has made the experience of quarantine especially unique and challenging for them. “The hardest part for me was when the borders closed,” said Savannah Dhaliwal, forward for the women’s basketball team. “I was in Canada when I got the notification that the [United States] was shutting them down, and month after month it kept getting extended by another 30 days. Since I had my student visa, I was able to come back, but it made everything much more stressful.”
Even without PSU’s athletic department operating at usual capacity, it still has its hands full. The department formed a COVID-19 planning team, which meets remotely each week to track the various health updates. The team consists of Cleary, PSU director of strength and conditioning Scott Fabian, PSU sports medicine staff and doctors from OHSU. The planning team has been working in partnership with OHSU to integrate up-to-date pandemic information into the safest and healthiest plan for their athletes’ return to campus.
During a May press conference, Oregon Governor Kate Brown said, “the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) is advising that any large gatherings at least through September should either be canceled or significantly modified.” However, the OHA hasn’t released any student athlete specific guidelines pertaining to coronavirus precautions, so the athletic department’s planning team relies on information coming from Multnomah County officials and the NCAA.
“The NCAA finally came out with actual rules and guidelines, because the first couple of months it was only recommendations, so that’s been helpful,” Cleary said. Between May and August, the NCAA provided a template of resources for colleges and universities, but no concrete rules for how athletic departments should proceed with their athletes during quarantine.
However, in mid-August, the NCAA laid out a strict protocol for colleges and universities to follow titled “Resocialization of Collegiate Sport: Developing Standards for Practice and Competition.” Since then, all student athletes must adhere to measures laid out in the 16-page document such as wearing masks, undergoing tests and practicing safe social distancing regardless of who they play for or which state they’re competing in.
“They’ve made it clear what you have to do if you want to practice and compete,” Cleary said. According to Cleary, 25–30 student athletes have trickled back to campus for strength and conditioning sessions at the Peter W. Stott Athletic Center, while more have plans to return. “We prioritized fall sports, as they were scheduled to have the first competition dates and allowable NCAA activities—football and soccer made up the first groups [for training],” Cleary said.
“[Multnomah County is] still sitting in phase one, so that really hinders what we’re able to do,” Cleary said. “We have to limit group size and avoid high-contact activities, so for now we’ve only had our athletes doing strength and conditioning training.” Cleary added, “We developed a protocol called our ‘Phase One Return to Training’ so we could ensure that we’re meeting all the guidelines through Multnomah County and the NCAA.”
The first piece of that protocol is testing.“We were out on the frontlines of testing, much before our peers,” Cleary said. PSU began testing their student athletes in June, while other universities weren’t required to until mid-August. “Our medical professionals felt strongly that we shouldn’t have students engaging in any activity unless they had a baseline test,” Cleary said. For the athletes who have been tested on campus by PSU, every result has been negative for COVID-19.
However, testing also presents the greatest challenge to PSU’s athletic department at the moment: who will pay the bill? “The cost of testing has been a concern since day one, because no one yet knows how it will play out with insurance companies,” Cleary said.
When a student athlete is injured, their primary insurance provider covers the initial cost, and then the university’s coverage covers the difference. However, insurance companies haven’t settled on whether they’ll be covering coronavirus tests for student athletes, or if there’s a limitation on the number of tests they’ll provide. With over 215 athletes and $53 per test, the numbers add up quickly.
“The current estimate for weekly surveillance testing of men and women’s basketball is [$60,000] for the whole season,” Cleary said. “When you roll in other high-contact sports like volleyball, football and soccer, then the costs could go upwards of $1 million, so we’re currently working on how to carve out money in the budget to make those tests happen.”
Another piece of the protocol is modified training. Teammates work-out in groups no larger than eight, which have been strategically formed into clusters based on position groups and athletes who live together. Before entering the Stott Center, athletes are screened for symptoms and have a temperature check administered by their athletic trainer. Once they’re cleared, they head directly to a hand-washing station inside, before proceeding straight to the weight room—all while wearing a mask and remaining a six-foot distance from each other. “We’re clear right now for conducting baseline tests and then a check for symptoms,” Cleary said. “However, once student athletes get into the calendar season, then we’ll begin weekly surveillance testing for 25% of all athletes and staff.”
For Cleary, implementing the new protocol isn’t the only challenge she faces—it’s also simply missing the flow of a regular season. “By now we should have played a few volleyball games, a couple soccer games and be gearing up for our first football road trip,” Cleary said. “I want to be talking to you about how we’re excited to leave town for a big game, not the various types of COVID tests.”
Tatiana Streun, PSU senior and forward for the women’s basketball team, shared a similar sentiment. “We don’t know life without sports, so it’s been really difficult,” Streun said. “I just want to play one more year. I didn’t know that my last game could have technically been my last game, none of us did.”