The continued uncertainty that the current coronavirus crisis has presented at every level of college athletics is far-reaching, creating the realistic possibility of lost seasons and potential closure of universities in the most extreme circumstances if the pandemic is prolonged for months.
Kiki Baker Barnes, Dillard University athletics director and interim commissioner of the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference, expressed that COVID-19 not only puts in jeopardy the upcoming fall sports season but member institutions’ ability to keep its doors open.
“I really don’t know. I really don’t know,” Barnes said Tuesday on the HBCU Sports Podcast about the prospects for athletic competition this fall. “I’m following the news and I’m watching … I really don’t know. I think we have to continue to monitor to see where this thing goes.”
The spring sports season has already been lost in its infancy after conferences and the NCAA ultimately decided that the coronavirus threat was too great to risk endanger students, athletes, fans and communities.
As a result, hundreds of college athletes, especially those in their senior seasons, were unable to complete their final campaigns. The NCAA, however, voted to allow schools to determine whether athletes could gain an extra year of eligibility.
Barnes said Dillard (a member of the NAIA) hasn’t run into that problem, as coaches at the university were given the authority to award seniors another season if athletes desired it.
Some athletes have said they were ready to graduate, and none at this point expressed a willingness to return to the university to participate in sports if they were already set to graduate.
“If there were athletes that wanted to come back, coaches would take care of them,” said Barnes. “That’s just how we operate. I don’t know if it’s the same everywhere else.”
Barnes was also cautious in setting a timetable for when athletics would return at all considering many students and athletes have been shuttered from campuses in order to mitigate COVID-19 infections. More importantly, she said, universities have to weigh the risk of exposing its student population to the virus and what that might mean from a legal perspective.
“I think that in terms of institutions trying to manage that and what it looks like if a student contracted it,” said Barnes. “I think the institution opens itself up to all kinds of liabilities.”
She later added: “Who’s going to take on that liability?”
And since many NAIA schools rely heavily on enrollment for financial support, a decline in students means a loss in revenue, which means tough, long-lasting decisions would have to be made.
“Whether we have sports or not, Dillard University needs to open,” said Barnes, who had to endure workforce reductions when the university was impacted by Hurricane Katrina. “There are going to be schools that are going to shut down. We’re not talking about sports not playing. We’re talking about institutions that won’t reopen, and that’s the scary part of this thing … We need to be able to open, that’s what we need to do and if we can’t open, it’s going to be a real tough time.”