Interview: Tech competitive sports

Many popular intramural sports face the possibility of cancellation this year, with indoor sports in the most jeopardy due to strict occupancy restrictions. // Photo Courtesy of GT Comp Sports

As students have returned to campus this fall, multiple questions have arisen regarding the future of competitive sports this semester and beyond. Club sports and intramurals are a significant part of campus life for many people, but it is also one of the most obvious places where the novel coronavirus could spread. The task of answering these questions has fallen on, among others, Dan Hazlett, the Assistant Director of Competitive Sports here at Tech. In his interview with the Technique, Hazlett detailed some of the steps in both the decision-making process for this semester and the plan for future semesters.

When competitive sports were shut down along with the rest of the campus in mid-March, Hazlett and others devoted themselves to finding a viable approach to resuming them. At first, said Hazlett, “we didn’t know how to proceed. No one did. There was no manual.” The pandemic had shut down sports at every level across the country, so there was no precedent for how to deal with such a situation.

A breakthrough finally came when The National Federation of State High School Associations released a set of guidelines for high schools to deal with COVID-19. Hazlett found this model “fairly applicable” to his situation, which was not dissimilar to a large high school. The Federation’s model classified each sport by risk level for contracting and spreading coronavirus, with sports like cornhole and golf classified as “low-risk”, while soccer and football were considered “high-risk”. The model also recommended a phased approach to bringing each of these sports back safely.

With some modifications, Hazlett was able to apply this model to competitive sports at Tech. He implemented a three-phased approach (similar to the societal guidelines seen from many different public authorities) for a return to action: Phase I limited sports-related activity to individual workouts, Phase II allowed for workouts in small groups and the resumption of certain “low-risk” sports and Phase III allowed all sports to resume, subject to safety protocols such as temperature checks and self-assessments. Currently, the CRC is in Phase II. Subject to that, they are offering six intramural sports for phase one (referring to the school year calendar and not the model): kickball, spikeball, beach volleyball, indoor volleyball, cornhole, and human foosball (as a replacement for soccer). Sports that are classified as high-risk have been cancelled, meaning that soccer, ultimate frisbee, and wiffle ball are not happening this semester. Phase I sports that may yet be cancelled include dodgeball and indoor soccer.

For the sports that are being played, several safety protocols and rule changes have been instituted. Masks are required for any indoor sport, as well as outdoor sports that do not require intense aerobic activity, such as cornhole. Rule changes have been made in sports like kickball to limit the number of touchpoints. Human foosball was devised as a lower-risk alternative to soccer, where players are arranged in lines and must stay within a given space to limit the amount of interpersonal contact.
Roster sizes have been decreased, and only a certain number of players will be allowed to show up for each game. For example, a volleyball might typically have 10 players – six on the court and four on the sideline to substitute. However, substitutions will not be allowed this year, so only six players can come to a game at a time. This allows for a buffer of players who may have to miss a game for any reason, including a positive coronavirus test.

In addition to this, the schedule has been shortened to decrease the risk of a midseason outbreak. For phase one, the regular season will only last three weeks, and the playoffs will take a week. As a result, the fee for intramurals has been decreased by 50% or more for every sport. The number of referees and officials has also been lowered.

Under the current guidelines, outdoor sports are preferred, as the CRC is still requiring masks indoors, and this could pose a safety hazard for aerobic sports. In addition to this, occupancy is limited, and any intramural activity places greater than usual restrictions on the facilities that are available to

CRC patrons. In order to allow for social distancing, the school removed a significant number of machines and exercise stations from the ground floor of the CRC and stored them in the auxiliary gym. This space would normally have been used for sports such as indoor soccer and dodgeball, and would have also been a convenient place to conduct human foosball, but that is currently impossible.

When asked about the future, Hazlett was cautiously optimistic. “I don’t see us getting out of Phase II this semester,” he said. He hopes to be able to offer some of the more high-risk sports in the spring, if the situation with the virus has improved. However, nothing is guaranteed, and things could change at any moment. Should restrictions be relaxed, spacing could become an issue, as the number of sports might increase while the distance required to hold them would increase. Sports such as soccer and ultimate frisbee already take up significant space on the SAC fields, and these combined with spring club sports such as baseball and lacrosse could create significant scheduling difficulties for the CRC.

In regards to club sports, Hazlett was very appreciative of the efforts made by the 35 clubs who chose to remain active this semester. In a normal semester, club sports provides a means of physical activity for 1500-2000 students, and Hazlett has been doing his best to “put clubs in [the] best position to be as active as they can be” under the current circumstances. To that end, the clubs were provided with a template and were required to draw up a proposal for safely and successfully conducting a season. Hazlett reviewed and submitted the proposals, and after a lengthy waiting period, they were finally given the green light this Wednesday.

Another new frontier for Hazlett and the comp sports office this year was e-intramurals. When the pandemic hit in March, it provided the perfect opportunity for a trial run of organized virtual competitions.

Approximately 300 people signed up, creating a natural survey to gauge the student body’s interest. The results were mixed: “It started with a bang and ended with a bit of a whimper” said Hazlett, but it nevertheless provided valuable feedback for the CRC. E-intramurals are once again being offered this fall, and Hazlett believes it will become a permanent part of competitive sports programming.

Finally, Hazlett addressed the big question which many people may be asking: why offer competitive sports in a time such as this? Hazlett emphasized the rigorous adherence to sanitation procedures that is being observed, and even suggested that conducting intramurals may serve to better limit potentially dangerous activity. In the absence of athletic outlets, students will be more likely to find their own, and there will be no way to regulate such activities. For an impromptu game of cornhole, students may or may not wear a mask, but in intramurals, it will be required. In Hazlett’s words, “our staff is going to do what needs to get done to ensure that our policies and safety precautions are followed”.

In addition to this, Hazlett pointed to the other side of the danger of the COVID-19 pandemic: the lack of social connection and physical activity. “I really hope people would look at both sides”, said Hazlett. “We all want our students to be healthy and be mentally sound, and to enjoy their time on campus”. In the age of quarantines and online classes, the need for people to find some way to be active and social is even more essential. The CRC is taking every measure to do everything safely, and while there is no perfect solution, Hazlett believes the protocols can and will be enforced effectively.