FRISCO, Texas – As the Southland Conference officially resumes athletic competition for the first time in more than eight months this week, the league returns to play with a renewed focus on prioritizing the health and safety of its student-athletes, coaches, officials and fans. This week’s opening men’s and women’s basketball games mark the first time since March that officially-sanctioned Southland activity will occur following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While some Southland members have participated in various sports during the fall semester, the league’s Board of Directors approved in August that the league’s championship competition for fall sports shift to the spring semester. Sports such as volleyball, soccer and cross country will have spring playing dates, and seven of the 11 football programs are planning for a shortened six-game league schedule beginning in late February. All fall sports with a revised spring calendar will have NCAA Championships access.
The last official competitions in the Southland occurred during the league’s basketball tournament on March 11, before all NCAA sports were suspended and ultimately canceled for the remainder of the spring semester.
With safety measures in place for basketball competition at Southland campuses in 2020-21, the sport will look different in many regards, as new protocols have been set in accordance with guidance from the NCAA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), state and local healthcare officials, and other campus and governmental directives.
“It’s been a challenging time in our league and across the entire NCAA in recent months as we’ve navigated the many complexities of return-to-play protocols during the pandemic,” Southland Commissioner Tom Burnett said. “While the complications of moving forward may continue, we have been very pleased with the collaborative effort of our membership to provide student-athletes with their competitive opportunities, keeping health and safety as a priority. This includes identifying required testing solutions, appropriate facility planning and operations, and more specific gameday preparation for each sport.”
As it relates to COVD-19 testing for basketball, Southland members are complying with the NCAA-recommended protocol of three-times-a-week in-season testing for individuals considered in “Tier 1,” such as a team’s student-athletes, coaches, trainers, managers and other immediate support staff. Game officials are also considered “Tier 1” individuals and are being tested in the same manner. “Tier 2” individuals, such as athletic administrators and other support personnel, can come in contact with “Tier 1” individuals with proper distancing and masking measures. “Tier 3” individuals, such as event services personnel and media members, should not come in close contact with “Tier 1” at all. Spectators are not considered in any of the tiers and should observe and comply with campus and local health mandates and guidance.
Further, Southland schools have policies in place to ensure daily health checks and other risk mitigation, proper retesting as appropriate, quarantining and isolation measures in place for suspected or confirmed positive cases, immediate contact tracing procedures, and other considerations after a positive test result. Longer term, the members will abide by NCAA, CDC and local health directives related to surveillance testing.
Specific to basketball competition once league play begins in January, campus administrators have agreed to requiring a conference game to be played as long as each team has eight eligible, negative-tested, and otherwise available student-athletes. Should a team have less than eight available players, that team’s coach has the discretion to determine whether the team will play the game. The policy for non-conference games will left to each program, although NCAA basketball playing rules require a team start each game with five players on the floor.
The Southland has also formed a Competition Contingency Subcommittee of athletic administrators to continually review planning and procedures in cases of disruption such as postponements, schedule adjustments and other issues that may occur.
Regarding limits on fan attendance and other guidelines at Southland arenas, each campus has made its own determinations based on local and statewide government directives for crowd gatherings. Further, each campus arena will have policies on exact seating and distancing requirements, access restrictions to the playing court, concessions planning, ingress and egress procedures, and altered floor planning for benches and support personnel. Fans are encouraged to review team websites and social media to ensure receiving updated information facility information.
“This basketball season will be unlike anything we’ve ever experienced,” Burnett added. “But again, our campus administrators have worked diligently in recent weeks and months to ensure we can conduct athletic competition in a safe manner. This may not be easy to do and could likely prove to be a difficult effort with additional measures necessary later. As we have seen, disruptions to fall sports scheduling have occurred with some regularity across Division I, and we should expect more of the same as we move forward. However, our institutions have planned for this, and we’re confident in their ability to manage issues as they occur.”