The Road Back to Marist Sports is Complicated, But At Least There is a Map

After the MAAC canceled all spring sports in March, many people wondered if fall sports would meet a similar fate.

That question was answered on July 27th. The MAAC held a press conference to announce that the fall season would be canceled. The conference stated that the health and safety of student-athletes was still at risk due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Marist, like every other academic institution in the country, has struggled to find ways to safely allow student-athletes to train, communicate with coaches and teammates, and possibly return to play in the spring of 2021. Marist’s Coordinator of Sports Medicine, Jeffrey Carter, went to great detail to explain how the new rules and regulations were created, what exactly those rules and regulations are, and how they impact the future of Marist athletics. 

To create these rules, Carter had to go through an extensive research and verification process, which included using the guidelines of five different organizations.

 “The big thing is state rules, which trump everything. But then there are NCAA rules,” said Carter. “The NCAA, throughout the summer, put out a ton of guidance material. A lot of our stuff, especially the phasing plan and the percentage of workload, came directly from the NCAA, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and the National Athletic Trainers Association. We worked a lot with the CDC, who had a lot of guidelines in terms of healthcare concerns. Between all of these organizations, we had to figure out how it all fits together.”

Carter is also a member of the MAAC Task Force, whose goal is to create guidelines and plans specifically for the MAAC. The members of this task force included all of the head athletic trainers of the MAAC, a few administrators, and MAAC commissioner, Richard Esnor. 

Since the creation of this task force, Carter has been in constant contact with the other head athletic trainers.

 “All of the head athletic trainers are working together weekly to come up with policies and use each other as resources,” said Carter, noting that they have also been monitoring states, comparing the status of New York with Connecticut and New Jersey. “There’s been a real learning curve.” 

The learning curve is something that Carter and his staff have had to learn from and adapt to. Originally, they planned a three-phased approach that dictated how the athletes trained. With the first phase allowing conditioning in small groups, called pods, with no equipment, the second keeps athletes in the pods but allowing some equipment, and the third permits athletes to train in larger groups with equipment.

That has since changed. 

“We’ve had to revamp our training plans a little bit. We are going to stick with our phase one for a much longer period of time, and we’ve eliminated phase two and three strictly based on some safety issues,” said Carter, “We’ve looked at some other institutions who have had some issues with larger group activities spreading the virus. We’ve determined that, as an athletic program, we don’t want to be the culprit of an outbreak on our campus.”

Carter remains hopeful that things will eventually progress and that phasing can be reintroduced. But for now, the safest and easiest thing for the athletes is to remain in small groups.

Carter wanted to make sure that the distinction between athletes training and practicing within their pods was clear. Players are permitted to train, which will consist mostly of conditioning exercises such as running, weight training, and skills training. Practice, on the other hand, would consist of scrimmages within a team. 

“They’ve got weight room time, conditioning time, and they can work on skills and they can run through plays, but it’s just never going to be a whole team put together with a defense against an offense,” said Carter. 

Of course, all players will be required to wear a mask during their sessions, even if they are outside.

The sizes of the pods will vary due to the unique make-up and size of each team’s roster. 

“It’s either 25% of the roster or under 10. So, for football, their pods are under ten because the roster is so big, but if it’s something like basketball where there are only 15 members of the team then pod size is three to four.”

Carter and his team have also had to work through issues off the field as well, such as the athletes’ diets, social habits, and injuries. 

Normally, players have a specific diet plan, protein supplements, and unlimited dining. Since the dining hall has been much more limited this semester and there are efforts to reduce as much contact as possible throughout the college, both trainers and athletes have needed to find ways to adapt.

“We’re working on safe ways to distribute protein. And it’s tougher now because the dining hall isn’t as available,” said Carter. “For example, the football guys like to eat more, and now it’s a little different without the all you can eat. Obviously, you’re all in a learning curve.”

Mandating the social behavior of the athletes off of the field has also been something that the coaches and athletic trainers have had to consider. Carter stuck with Marist’s rules about social activity, with coaches adding regulations for their specific teams. 

And what about athletes with injuries or students who need to earn hours with the athletic training staff? This is another hurdle that Carter has had to try to overcome. 

“In terms of our student-athletes, they are still allowed to come in and see us. Normally, it’s very free-flowing, people coming in and out without appointment scheduling. That’s changed dramatically. Each athlete has to schedule an appointment with us and it’s usually one-on-one time.”

The number of people in the training room is also limited, which causes potential scheduling conflicts for athletes as appointment times begin to fill up. In addition to creating an appointment, athletes must go through a health screening each time they arrive. 

“When they get here we are doing a temperature check and a symptom checklist,” said Carter. “There are a lot of safety precautions because we consider our office a ‘clean zone’ and we are minimally staffed right now. We are down to two staff members, so, unfortunately, if one of us gets sick or gets quarantined, we lose a third of our staff.”

The number of students allowed to participate and work with the athletic trainers to earn clinical hours has been limited due to the number of people allowed in the offices at the same time. For now, seniors are the only students in the program that can work in the offices. They have the highest level of experience with the use of personal protective equipment and they need a certain amount of clinical hours to graduate. 

“The seniors are coming in small groups, usually one or two in the office at any one point,” said Carter. “They rotate through every week. They’ve gone over all of the protective equipment they’ll have available like masks, gowns, gloves, goggles, you name it.”

With New York State now allowing gyms to reopen, Marist’s McCann Center will soon open its doors. Carter has been hard at work assembling and submitting a proposal to New York State that would allow for activities to return to the newly renovated building.

 “We submitted our proposal to New York State as an institution. To do it right, some inspections need to be done,” said Carter. “The Department of Health will be coming in to inspect our facility and making sure all of our protocols are up to speed, which they are. We’ve either met or exceeded every New York State standard in terms of fitness centers.” 

For sports with minimal contact, like tennis and track, Carter believes that there is a chance that they could return before heavy contact sports, such as football and basketball. Ultimately, the decision remains in the hands of the NCAA who, according to Carter, is attempting to make sure each team is treated equally. 

“The NCAA doesn’t want to say, ‘hey we are going to let tennis start their championships even when we can’t let these other fall sports play.’ You want to have each athlete say that they were treated equally among everyone else. They’re trying to balance that as much as they can.”

Carter remains optimistic that sports could be played to some degree in the winter and spring.

“Everything we’ve done policy and protocol wise has always been to try to get the sports back up and going,” said Carter. “The optimism in me has always thought that, hopefully, we can do something in the spring. Obviously, the NCAA is working on how to effectively do that. Some sports I think they can do; others will be a little more difficult.”

A return to college sports, at Marist and pretty much anywhere else, depends on the creation, distribution, and administration of a vaccine for COVID-19. If and when there is a vaccine, things could return to normal rather quickly.

But we have not yet arrived there. So for the remainder of the fall season, Carter and his team will continue work to create a safe environment for student-athletes, adapt to the everchanging environment created by COVID-19, and plan for the eventual continuation of Marist athletics.

Edited by Jonathan Kinane

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