The Southland Conference has postponed its fall sports, the league announced Thursday, joining other college leagues that have postponed athletics because of concerns stemming from the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The conference’s Board of Directors decided to postpone all league competition in football, volleyball, women's soccer and cross county. The conference intends to play those sports in the spring.
This means four Louisiana colleges — McNeese State, Northwestern State, Nicholls State and Southeastern Louisiana — will not play sports this fall. The Southland Conference gave its members an option to pursue non-conference games, but those four schools elected not to do so.
"There were a lot of differing opinions, but we've gotten to a point where we had to give up on the fall," Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett said. "We had to come up with something else, and like some peer conferences, the spring seemed to be that opportunity."
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The conference tried to hold sports this fall, but a wide array of factors influenced its decision, including postponements made by other conferences and the cancellation of NCAA championships at the FCS level.
When the Southern Conference postponed fall competition later Thursday, all but one FCS conference had postponed their fall seasons — though some have allowed teams to play non-conference games. Burnett emphasized a spring season “includes NCAA postseason opportunities.”
Travel also concerned the league, Northwestern State athletic director Greg Burke said, later adding one team in the Southland Conference had 34 positive coronavirus cases after its first round of PCR testing. Burke declined to say which team.
“If this can happen within your inner bubble,” Burke said, “then you really worry about what might happen outside of it.”
After the announcement, Southland Conference teams were split on whether or not to play non-conference games this fall. Lamar athletic director Marco Born said the school will look for opponents in football, volleyball and soccer.
Enough schools will not play sports this fall that NCAA championships in every fall sport have been canceled, NCAA president Mark Emmert said Thursday, with the exception of FBS football.
Central Arkansas athletic director Brad Teague said the program "is moving forward with its fall campaign in all sports, playing a reduced schedule." Teague said Central Arkansas would coordinate with schools from the Missouri Valley, Ohio Valley, Southern and Big South conferences.
However, the Big South conference announced plans Wednesday to postpone competition until next spring. The Missouri Valley and Southern also announced spring seasons, but they allowed member schools to play this fall at their own discretion.
"We are confident we can do this safely and provide a healthy space for them all," Teague said in a statement.
While other Southland Conference teams decided to pursue fall competition, the four Louisiana schools opted to wait until the league schedule begins sometime next year.
Their choice eliminated two games for FBS teams still playing this fall, including Tulane’s season opener against Southeastern. Tulane will immediately look for a replacement as it tries to play 12 games.
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"After consulting with (McNeese president Dr. Daryl Burckel) and numerous medical professionals, we feel like this is the right decision,” McNeese interim athletics director Heath Schroyer said in a statement. “We are student-athlete centered, and the health and safety of all of our student-athletes is first and foremost.”
Moving forward, players can remain on campus to train, attend classes and prepare for the spring season. Schools hope they can hold an extended practice period with pads, essentially flipping their yearly schedules, but they await NCAA guidance.
The Southland Conference has not determined parameters for the spring season, like its starting date or number of games. Northwestern State knows it won’t play a full schedule because postponing until the spring means athletes have to play two seasons in one year. Players need time to rest before the 2021 fall season.
“I know there's some questions about, 'Can we really do it in the spring?'” Burke said. “Well, you know what? As of right now, we're going to say we can. You've got to hinge your hopes on that.”