The outbreak of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) virus has virtually stopped the sports world not only nationally but locally. While there are only nine presumably confirmed cases of the Coronavirus in Arkansas at press time, the Arkansas Activities Association (AAA) elected to suspend all springs sports until March 30 effective Sunday.
And they aren’t the only ones.
The Great American Conference Council of Presidents announced an indefinite suspension of the conference’s athletic competitions for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year. The move directly impacts Arkansas Tech University and also caused the cancellation of the annual Bash at the Ballpark event, which had already been moved once due to inclement weather.
This decision follows the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s cancellation of all championships for the remainder of the academic year.
“In one regard, this is a disheartening day,” said Abby Davis, interim director of athletics at Arkansas Tech University. “There are no words of comfort we can offer to our senior student-athletes upon learning that their collegiate athletic careers have come to such a sudden end. However, it has become obvious in recent days that this issue is much larger than athletics. As defined by the World Health Organization, this is a pandemic that must take top priority in our society at this time. The Wonder Boys and the Golden Suns will return to the fields and courts of play at the appropriate time, and we will anxiously await that day. In the meantime, our focus as a department will be on our student-athletes, their health and their personal and academic success.”
For the university, that doesn’t just mean no games. It also means no practices. For high school athletes, however, the decision to continue practicing is left up to each school.
“Our policy is going to be as long as we are in school, we can still practice,” Russellville athletic director Johnny Johnson said. “But if for some reason school is canceled, then we will also cancel practices.”
The Cyclones baseball and softball teams were scheduled to begin 5A-West Conference play on Tuesday against Greenbrier, and many of the smaller area schools have already begun their conference seasons.
Per the Arkansas Activities Association, conference games must be played to determine seeding in the district and state tournaments – meaning most of these games will likely have to be replayed later in the year, if the season continues at all.
“I think what will happen once we get to March 30, we’ll have a better idea what the AAA is going to do,” Johnson said. “There’s still a chance they will cancel all spring sports. If they say we can play, we’ll have to go back and figure out how to get all our conference games in, but we will have only missed two conference baseball and softball games.”
Soccer and track and field teams also miss out on a portion of their season.
“This is a unique situation we are dealing with because we’ve never been down this road before,” Johnson said. “I think that’s why everyone is wanting to err on the side of caution. It seems like everything is dominoing off what’s above you. You see the NBA cancel their season. Then you see the NCAA cancel their tournament. Now you see the high school postpone their spring sports.”
Following that chain of events, Russellville Youth Baseball Association (RYBA) decided to suspend its season until further notice, and the Arkansas Valley Soccer Association (AVSA) also suspended games and practices.
“The Russellville Recreation and Parks Department made a decision to close all parks until further notice,” read an email distributed to parents with children in RYBA. “RYBA will suspend all practices until further notice and ask that all RYBA coaches, parents and players respect the closure of the parks at this time.”
Erin Michael, executive assistant to the mayor’s office, said not all parks are closing though some are.
“We can’t close the parks that are open [without gates] to prevent people from going in,” she said. “We are advising people that we don’t have all the tools to go out and sanitize our equipment regularly.”
Michael said the city will close the Russellville Aquatic Center and Pleasant View Park.
Dover athletic director and head baseball coach Wes McCrotty said he had a feeling the AAA would suspend the season yesterday, and he took time to prepare his players.
“We tried to prepare the guys it could happen,” he said. “But I think one thing we are all thankful for is they didn’t cancel the rest of the season, so there is still hope we will get to go play baseball. We’re just hoping the fear and the virus itself dies down within the next couple of weeks for everybody’s sake.”
McCrotty said the kids are upset and some of them don’t understand.
“Some of these kids are only 14,” he said. “The season is only two weeks old, and we still have a lot of baseball left to play, but their heads are down, and they know they are losing some of their season. Some of the younger ones don’t quite understand the decision and why it was made, but we are going to talk to them more today. If that means we aren’t playing baseball, it means we are not playing baseball. In my mind, it’s the right decision.”
McCrotty said as long as school is still in session the teams will continue to practice, but for the Pirates at least, there have been measures to help prevent the spread of infection even on the practice field.
“We try and be outside as much as possible,” he said. “That keeps us from being in a confined space. We have our kids wash their hands before and after practice. Instead of sharing water bottles or getting water out of a cooler, we get them their own water bottles. We do our best to limit the contact between each player.”
Pottsville Lady Apaches softball head coach Lyndsey Hill said she thought this was a good decision by the AAA.
“Obviously I want to play, and I know my girls want to play, but this was a good decision,” she said. “They did not fully cancel the season rght off the bat like I feared they might. I feel like giving the situation some time to develop and then reassessing is the best thing they can do right now.”
Hill said the safety of her players and their families is more important than softball.
“We already had the flu take its toll on our team this season and I do not want to see anything worse go around,” she said. “Sports are different than anything else because we have about four buckets of balls that hold almost 30 softballs and almost every girl will end up touching every one of those softballs during the course of our practice. Spreading a virus on a team is imminent.
“It’s not ‘if’ a player gets sick, it’s ‘when’ they do and ‘who else’ they give it to. A team environment is like a family environment in the fact that we are in close proximity to each other at all times. Girls share drinks, food, clothes, equipment. Germs are passed around freely. I hate that it has had to come to this, but I believe it is in the best interest of all of our athletes. It is bigger than the game of softball.”
The AAA will reevaluate its decision on March 30.
“It will be interesting to see what happens in the sports world on that day,” Johnson said.