The return of collegiate sports: why athletes are coming back to the game during the pandemic

Sports are said to have the power to bring people together, regardless of age, race, gender, culture or nationality. In a world that can feel divided, collegiate athletic departments around the nation are in flux trying to decide what the right path is for their schools and student-athletes amidst the coronavirus pandemic. 

On Sept. 26, the 10th and final Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) team announced that it would be playing a fall football season. With guidance from health officials, colleges across the nation have decided that fielding a football team during a pandemic will prove to be beneficial for many reasons. 

[Photo of Boise State football players punting a football in a 2019 game]
Photo by Mackenzie Hudson | The Arbiter

The total athletics revenue reported by all NCAA athletics departments in 2019 was $18.9 billion according to the NCAA.

When the Big Ten originally announced that it would be postponing its season, it was met with protests from student-athletes, students and fans. 

As people across the nation have experienced financial hardships due to the pandemic, the Athletic Department has had budget cuts of their own. With the constant changes to decision making for the sports seasons and the safety protocols for players and staff, the department and teams are working to find ways to adjust and work with the changes.


High-profile student-athletes such as Justin Fields, Trevor Lawrence and Mac Jones took to Twitter to join the #WeWantToPlay movement. In the midst of the pandemic, there was a national outcry for college sports to return.

Boise State Head Football Coach Bryan Harsin has helped lead the program to perennial success, winning the Mountain West championship game three out of the last six years. After the Big Ten announced it would be playing football he released a statement of his own.

“The Big Ten’s announcement today that they’ve identified a safe path for playing football this fall is very encouraging. Our players and coaches want to play. We look forward to getting back on The Blue,” Harsin wrote.

Boise State safety Even Tyler will be a sixth-year senior this fall. During his time as a Bronco, Tyler suffered two ACL injuries, witnessed a canceled bowl game and will be playing during a pandemic. 

“It’s really important that football is back,” Tyler said. “In terms of social justice, we have a platform and we are able to speak on whatever we want to talk about. In terms of the pandemic it sucks, it has affected literally everybody. Football is something that we can look at as a positive note that we got college on Saturdays and NFL on Sundays. Hopefully, it will bring us back to some normalcy.”

Finding A Playbook

Harsin released a statement Sept. 26, after the Mountain West presidents voted to play.

“When you’re going through unprecedented times without a playbook with all the answers, it takes a unique ability to adapt and communicate,” Harsin said. “A major virtual high-five to Dr. Tromp as she navigated through this with the other conference presidents and worked to find a solution for us to get back on the field and play this fall. That’s a tribute to her passion and pride for our program and the student-athletes that represent Boise State.”

Football is the only contact sport that Boise State plans on fielding a team for the fall season. Other fall sports are preparing for a January start, but no definite decisions have been made and a schedule has not been produced.

Boise State basketball is set to tip-off in late November. The men’s team has been holding weekly Zoom calls because they are not allowed to hold team practice yet. According to third-year Assistant Coach Tim Duryea, players have been told to do workouts at home, but are having trouble finding available gyms.

“I think it’s been really hard on them to be honest with you. We get on Zoom calls and I try to look at everyone and see who is struggling more than others based on where they are at and what they have available to them,” Duryea said. “I think they are about at the end of their rope to be honest. They want to get back out there and be able to get in a gym and do what they’ve done their whole lives. We really worry about our international kids because they are here without their families and can’t go home. I feel for those guys and we’re trying to keep a close eye on them.”

While Boise State basketball plans on playing, it is unknown if student-athletes will be put in a ‘bubble’ similar to the NBA. If a bubble system were used, student-athletes from all over the Mountain West would most likely move into a host city or cities and be isolated for the duration of the season.

Reassessing the Revenue

On Sept. 16, Boise State University announced plans to furlough and reduce the compensation of Athletic Department staff. Employees making over $40,000 would be affected by the furloughs and compensation reductions. Employees making $100,000 would have their salary reduced by 8% to 15%.

Boise State President Marlene Tromp sent a letter to faculty and staff announcing that cost-saving measures and job cuts were being planned. 

“Going forward, we will have some cuts in our workplace and operations, striving to mitigate the impact on our people as much as possible,” Tromp wrote in a letter sent to faculty and staff. “Some of these may happen with more immediacy, depending upon the considerations of each unit.” 

According to Tromp, the Athletic Department anticipated losing between $25 million and $30 million without a football season. With a football season, those losses were projected to be between $10 million and $15 million.

“We can’t predict if there will be additional expenses related to the pandemic or, specifically,  what challenges lie ahead,” Tromp wrote. “We are working diligently to anticipate a variety of possibilities and prepare for them, but so much remains unknown.”

In an attempt to cut its losses, Boise State ended its baseball and women’s swimming and diving programs. The decision was announced July 2 in a video conference led by President Marlene Tromp and Athletic Director Curt Apsey. Cutting the two sports saved the university approximately $2.3 million, according to Apsey.

In documents obtained by the Idaho Statesman through a public records request, Boise State reported that from 2018 to 2019, the football team generated the most money for the athletic program with $24,683,041 in total revenue. 

Men’s basketball came in second with $5,146,161. However, these numbers do not include donations which are also considerably driven by the teams.

Safety Efforts for Athletes

With confirmed COVID-19 cases surpassing the 7 million mark in the United States, according to the CDC, most colleges have opted for remote learning to protect staff and students alike. This initiative has led to questions regarding student-athlete safety.

The NCAA requires weekly testing for teams participating in fall competition. Additional testing is required for athletes who are displaying symptoms or have come into contact with a sick person. 

The Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference and Big 12 have all been testing team personnel three times a week, while the Big 10 has committed to daily testing.

Twenty-two college football games have been cancelled over six weeks due to health concerns. All games that were cancelled have no plans of rescheduling. When a game is cancelled, neither team is awarded a win or a loss to their record. 

The Mountain West has partnered with Quest Diagnostics and will test student-athletes and staff three times per week using rapid-result antigen testing. Any student-athlete or staff member who tests positive with the point of contact test will be required to take a polymerase chain reaction(PCR) to confirm. PCR tests are used to detect if the antigen has entered the body rather than the body’s immune response.

“We’re dealing with class, we’re dealing with the testing and the way we’re operating in the facility is not normal,” said Harsin. “Everything is completely different, we knew it was gonna be that way when we started. We have a blueprint to start with so we’re not making everything up.”

 San José State University President Mary Papazian is  chair of the Mountain West Board of Directors. She released a statement explaining why the Mountain West has made the decisions they have for the conference.

“The health and well-being of our student-athletes continue to guide all decisions,” Papazian said. “The availability of rapid testing addresses one of the main concerns that was expressed by our board, the MW Health and Safety Advisory Committee, as well as by student-athletes and coaches. Our student-athletes have voiced their desire to compete, and it is the board’s shared opinion that football can be conducted with appropriate mitigation.” 

Boise State football kicks off their season Oct. 24, at home against Utah State. There will be no fans in attendance to protect student-athletes, staff and the campus community.

“It’s a total team effort, that’s what it comes down to,” said Harsin. “We all have to be in this thing together. We have to understand that what we do is going to impact a lot of things so we have to be responsible and accountable for our actions. I think our community at Boise State is strong and we’re going to keep promoting that and I think football is going to help it.

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