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Great Northwest Athletic Conference grants Western autonomy in scheduling a spring season

Potential season for postponed fall sports, athletic department grapples with rising COVID-19 cases

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Western athletics logo featuring Victor the Viking. // Courtesy of Photo via wwuathletics Instagram page.

By Nathan Schumock

The Great Northwest Athletic Conference announced Jan. 8 they were granting institutions in their conference autonomy for scheduling of men’s soccer, women’s soccer and volleyball.

Western Washington University is a part of the GNAC conference that includes Central Washington University, Simon Fraser University and a number of other universities in the Pacific Northwest. The scheduling for the universities’ sports teams usually falls under the GNAC’s responsibilities, but that has changed for fall sports due to the effects of COVID-19.

In July, the GNAC voted to postpone fall sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After approval from the GNAC management council, the council has given institutions the flexibility to decide if there will be a season and what it will look like, said Jeff Evans, Western’s director of athletic communications.

There is still uncertainty surrounding the possibility of a spring season, as Whatcom County hit a new high for COVID-19 cases in the week of Jan 10, according to the Washington State Department of Health.

“Our hope is that our student athletes will return safely to practices on Jan. 19, and from there we will continue to monitor everything,” Evans said.

Another drawback of the pandemic is Western’s travel ban that restricts any travel outside of the state for games. This would remove a significant number of teams from the potential schedule.

“The odds of us going to play a game in Montana, probably not going to happen,” said Evans. “The odds of us going across the [U.S.-Canadian] border — well, we have no choice. That’s governed by the government.”

Evans said an ideal start time for men’s soccer, women’s soccer and volleyball to start competing would be the end of March or early April.

Natalie Dierickx, a senior on the women’s soccer team, touched on her feelings surrounding a limited spring schedule.

“We were a little bummed to hear that we can’t have a conference schedule in the spring,” Dierickx said. “But in the long run, it’s probably better to wait until fall to make sure that all schools are safe.”

Western’s main goal is to get their athletes settled and then try to plan for competition play, Evans said.

Dierickx said Western requires all players to get a COVID-19 test every two weeks in order to keep their athletes safe. She also said that before every practice, they have to show their COVID-19 cleared green badge before they can step onto the field. Western’s badge tracking system assigns students a color-coded badge based on the student's daily health screening and bi-weekly COVID-19 test, according to MyWesternHealth. If the individual is all clear, they get a green badge, which means they are good to go.

“We wear masks during practice and we have to sit six feet apart from each other,” Dierickx said.

Marc Edelman, a professor of sports law at The City University of New York and author of a paper on the way schools have tried to bring sports back during a pandemic, stressed the importance of universities staying consistent with the policies for both the student body and their athletes.

“The comparable treatment and permission of activity between the sport and everything else in the university seems to be a guardrail to manage risk,” Edelman said.

Evans said Western has been consistent throughout the pandemic, since athletes are treated the same as other students on campus.

“I’m proud of the way we’ve handled this,” Evans said. “I’m proud of the way that we’ve been proactive and got ahead of things.”

The athletes will still start practice Tuesday, Jan. 19, even though a schedule has not been officially set.

“The games may be scheduled, but they are not official,” Evans said.


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