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The clock is ticking for University of Maine athletics in terms of whether there will be a fall season.
The fate of sports at UMaine and elsewhere remains up in the air due to the COVID-19 pandemic and protocols put in place to deal with social distancing, large gatherings and testing.
The Ivy League schools, Bowdoin College in Brunswick and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, are among the entities that have already canceled their fall sports.
“Because of the nature of having to bring players back early for preseason, we’re going to need some type of clarity in the next two weeks,” UMaine athletics director Ken Ralph said. “Things are going to coalesce pretty quickly after the Ivy announcement.”
The Ivy League was among the first to shut down the winter season in March when the coronavirus began impacting the U.S. on a wide scale. Conferences and the NCAA soon followed in halting sports.
“Some larger schools are going to delay as long as possible. They have much more money at stake than we do,” Ralph said. “For us, our focus is always going to be on the safety of our students and the community.
“We’ll deal with the revenue issues later. We want to play but only if we can do it safely,” he added.
UMaine and its affiliated conferences are in a quandary.
The Colonial Athletic Association, UMaine’s football conference, has 12 teams from nine different states. With the addition of the New Jersey Institute of Technology this season, the 10 America East women’s soccer teams hail from eight states.
Each state and each conference has its own protocols in dealing with the coronavirus.
UMaine’s first hurdle is testing availability.
“Right now, we’re waiting for the guidance from the [University of Maine system] as far as when we can initiate the [COVID-19] testing protocol,” Ralph said. “We’re anticipating we’ll be able to start testing sometime around July 18.
“We’re going to have to see how many tests are going to be available. And they aren’t an inexpensive endeavor. Each costs in excess of $100 when you factor in everything,” he said.
Ralph said he and representatives from other league schools have worked on a host of contingency plans for a return to play. They include a later starting date, shifting games to different days, playing only conference games and moving the fall sports to the spring.
There also have been a number of contingencies in regard to spectators including games being played with no fans, maximum capacity or modified social distancing with fans wearing face coverings.
“They’re all in the hopper. They’ve all been discussed,” Ralph said.
He remains optimistic, but conceded there are many factors that affect having a fall sports season. Headlining that list is travel.
“That’s one of the ones we have to solve. If you have to quarantine in certain places, you can’t play there,” said Ralph, who also questioned what happens for teams visiting Orono for games.
“And what do you do about the officials? Nobody is talking about that. A lot of them are from the Boston area,” Ralph said.
UMaine is working to arrange for the return to campus of its international student-athletes, some of whom are subject to travel bans. Trying to obtain travel visas has been complicated by the closure of several of the consulates.
“A lot of the student-athletes are still up in the air with their travel plans,” he said.
Ralph sees some positives that have evolved from the response to the COVID-19 situation.
“People realize how much they miss sports and they are using sports as a rallying point to take [safety] measures more seriously to stem the tide of this coronavirus,” Ralph said.
He also noted that the challenges are forcing college athletics to look at new ways of doing things that might be beneficial in the future.
“We’re willing to listen to any rational ideas,” he said.