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ISU, IWU Prep For Sports To Return, Not Knowing When Or How

Fans at Hancock Stadium
WGLT file photo
Illinois State University hopes it will fill Hancock Stadium again should the football season be allowed to resume in the fall.

College athletic departments are preparing for the return of sports, even though they don't know when that will be or what it might look like in a COVID-19 world.

Larry Lyons
Credit Illinois State University
Illinois State University Athletics Director Larry Lyons said each of its sports programs are safe, but it will be a challenge to offset the financial loss from the NCAA canceling its basketball tournament and spring sports.

“This is the most remarkable time that anybody in college athletics has ever had to deal with,” declared Illinois State University athletics director Larry Lyons. 

He referred to March 12 as the day everything changed. First, the Missouri Valley Conference women’s basketball tournament was canceled. Hours later, the NCAA canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and all spring sports.

“March 12 was D-Day in my book,” Lyons said.  

He said colleges are still awaiting word from the NCAA on what happens next. For now, nothing is planned on the ISU campus through the end of July -- just weeks before training camps would ramp up for fall sports.

Lyons said the university could lose up to $1 million in funding from the NCAA since the March Madness basketball tournament and all spring sports were cancelled.

“There is going to be a shortfall. Everybody is going to have to deal with a shortfall. Every school in the country is,” Lyons said. “How are we going to ... deal with that? That’s another thing we are working through right now.”

Lyons assured all of ISU's sports programs are safe.

Making up that money could become harder if sports reopen in the fall without fans to buy tickets and concessions. It's one option under consideration, but Lyons isn't a fan of playing games without fans in the stands. 

“For the student-athletes and for the fans, the donors, the alums, the parents, everybody participates in that activity,” he said. “If that’s what we are told to do, then we’ll have to deal with it.”

Illinois Wesleyan Athletic Director Mike Wagner said he would be fine with games without fans, or only with the families of the student-athletes, if necessary, just so the athletes get to play.

“We’re not talking 80,000 people at a Division III football game or soccer game or anything like that,” Wagner said. “Our numbers aren’t quite as big as that anyway.”

Shirk Center sign
Credit Eric Stock / WGLT
Illinois Wesleyan University athletic director Mike Wagner said the athletic department would take a financial hit if it's unable to use its venues, including Shirk Center, to host campus and other events during the summer.

The financial model in Division III sports is much different from Division I. There are no athletic scholarships. Athletic budgets are funded largely by tuition dollars, though Wagner said IWU could lose revenue from the many community events that could be canceled over the summer, including basketball camps at Shirk Center.

Wagner is more upset about the spring athletes who didn't get a chance to compete, including IWU's defending national champion men's golf team and a softball squad that had advanced to the Division III College World Series four years in a row. 

“I’m heartbroken for those students who didn’t get the opportunity to finish out their careers,” Wagner said.

Students in spring sports have regained that year of eligibility, but Wagner said no IWU student has claimed that additional year yet. He noted most seniors already have made career plans, plus paying another year of tuition to maintain eligibility would be a barrier for some.

Lyons said ISU’s spring sports coaches are working with student-athletes who are exploring a return. He said the university will cover the athletic scholarship for students who want a fifth year, but added it needs to be the “right fit.”

“It gets complicated from that point,” Lyons said. “Are they on track to graduate in May, or was it an August graduation or what? You’ve got to make sure your academics are taken care of.”

Lyons said students who are set to graduate could explore graduate school. For student-athletes not on full scholarships, they would have to consider the amount of financial aid they could receive.

“It’s not a simple 'yes' or 'no,'" Lyons said. "'You have to take the emotions out of the whole thing.” 

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