This has been a rough week for major college sports in its battle to keep the COVID-19 pandemic from shutting programs down.
Teams have stopped practicing and games have been canceled. But at the University of Massachusetts, both the football and basketball teams are at work preparing for their next games.
There have been some 15 football games either canceled or postponed because of a lack of numbers due, in large part, to COVID-19 positive tests.
“We came back from the [Marshall] game. We were tested Sunday, Tuesday and again [Thursday]. All negative as far as we know,” UMass football coach Walt Bell said this week. “We were able to get out there and practice.”
Bell’s football team is getting ready for a game Friday night at Florida Atlantic, and a game the following week at Liberty. Matt McCall’s basketball team is busy preparing for a trip to “Bubbleville” at Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. But two of the first three games on the schedule are already up in the air. UMass is supposed to play Siena on Thanksgiving afternoon and then Iona on Sunday. Both schools pressed pause on their athletics due to positive tests. Iona will break for 14 days and assuming Siena does the same, both games would be off the schedule.
UMass is still scheduled to play Delaware on Nov. 27 and South Florida on Dec. 1. There is no word on whether the Siena and Iona games are off the board, and if there will be replacement teams slotted in.
In Division I-FBS football, a number of games this weekend were either postponed or canceled. That list included Ohio State-Maryland, Alabama-LSU and Memphis-Navy.
“It’s a reminder that you have to stay incredibly vigilant,” Bell said in response to my question in a Thursday Zoom call. “I’m sure every coach in the country, the majority of college football players in the country are doing everything they possibly can to ensure they get the opportunity to play the game they love. That’s why they’re taking the risks that they take. Not even around COVID, football’s a dangerous game. The sacrifices the majority of coaches, players, their families, make just to play the game period. I think it’s an unbelievable reminder that you have to stay vigilant.”
Now, as I write this, everything is working well at UMass. But as we have learned since March, COVID-19 does not care about that. By the time you read this, things could continue to work well for Bell and McCall. Things could just as easily go south in a hurry and the next thing you know, one team or both teams could be sidelined because of positive tests.
Football players and coaches wear masks on the practice fields and if you watched last week’s Marshall game, you noticed that Bell and every one of his assistants were masked.
The same goes with McCall and the basketball team. During last week’s Atlantic 10 Conference Media Day Zoom conference, I asked about the team’s precautions. He said that players wear masks inside the Kennedy Champions Center. The coaches, when they’re alone in their offices, do not. They do on the practice court.
“We get tested twice a week. I think we’re on test No. 28 that we just took the other day. That’ll ramp up as we get closer to game time to three times a week,” McCall said. “Those are really the main protocols. They want you wearing a mask anytime you’re outside of the building, walking to your car. Our staff has done a great job maintaining those protocols.”
Staying safe hasn’t been easy for you, for me, for our families or our friends. It hasn’t been easy for McCall and his staff or for Bell and his staff. And much like the rest of us, it is starting to wear on Bell’s athletes.
“Our kids have done an incredible job. They’ve done everything we’ve asked of them to do. I think, if you look at the country in general, everybody’s got a little bit of fatigue. Whether it’s restricting your travel, restricting your work. I think everybody’s got a little corona fatigue right now,” Bell said. “When you seen what’s going in our country. You see cases, hospitalizations, I don’t think there’s a metric that isn’t on the up right now. It’s one more reminder that you’ve got to stay vigilant. You’ve got to be careful. You’ve got to make [good] decisions.”
So be careful out there.