NORFOLK, Va. — The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference on Thursday announced it is suspending all fall sports seasons, meaning South Carolina State will not be playing football, women's cross country or volleyball in 2020, due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The MEAC is the first full Division I conference to call off its fall sports season.
2020 would have been the 50th year of MEAC football.
“Obviously this is an arduous decision because everyone wants to have a fall season for student-athletes, fans and others,” MEAC Commissioner Dr. Dennis Thomas said. “Part of our responsibility is to ensure the mental and physical health and safety of our student-athletes, coaches, and staff is paramount.
"It is imperative that everyone recognize that is our first and foremost responsibility.”
In a release, the conference said it plans to continue with winter sports as scheduled, which includes men's and women's basketball. The conference also says it has not made a decision on the possibility of playing the fall sports seasons in the spring semester.
"Had a rough day; found out we will not have a football season, this fall at least, here at South Carolina State," SC State head football coach Oliver "Buddy" Pough said, having not seen his team since spring break in March, due to the ongoing threat of the virus. "(We) had a nice start last year, had a pretty good year (as MEAC co-champions), and I was real excited about this coming year. We had some good-looking talent returning, and we thought they had a chance to be pretty good.
"We don’t still know if our team will be coming back to campus. We’ll figure that out next week."
Plans originally had been for SC State to bring nearly 70 football players back to campus in late June, then early July, with virus testing and monitoring measures in place. But, those plans were put on hold as, according to Pough, "there were some of us (Division I programs) who had their young men in, and it wasn’t going all that well (with virus test results)."
As of the end of June, at least 37 of Clemson's 120 football players (right at 30 percent) in workouts on campus had tested positive for the virus and were returning to training after quarantining and recovering. The athletic department at South Carolina, meanwhile, has released no information on positive results among Gamecock players or staff when media requests have been made the last few months.
Pough, meanwhile, has not been able to get his players together this summer. But they are communicating with each other.
“We’ve had good connectivity to our young men, even though they’ve all been spread out and around,” Pough said. According to the coach, online Zoom meetings with his players have helped develop a closer relationship with the players and their families.
Pough admits 2020 has offered challenges he hasn't faced in his previous 18 summers as head coach of the Bulldogs.
"I think this changes everything we have done or even heard of being done,” he said. “It has been a rough and tumble kind of existence.
“I have never gone through anything in my lifetime of this sort, and I can tell you that I don’t think any of the rest of us have either. (This fall) it’ll be a strange kind of existence for me. I think it’s the right move. I just couldn’t quite figure out exactly how we get around and play the game safely. At this level, I just don’t quite know if it can be done financially, and otherwise actually."
The MEAC decision comes one week after the two NCAA Division II HBCU conferences, the CIAA and SIAC, announced their decision to shut down competition for fall 2020.
CIAA stoppage ended Claflin University's chances at fall sports, while SIAC stoppage ended Benedict College's chances at fall sports.
Other FCS conferences, including the Ivy League and the Patriot League, will also sit out the 2020 fall sports seasons.
The MEAC released the following statement just after noon on Thursday:
The Council of Presidents and Chancellors of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) announces that the league will suspend all sports competition, championship, and non-championship segments, for the 2020 fall season, as a result of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. A decision is yet to be made on whether fall sports schedules will be moved to the 2021 spring semester.
The conference currently plans to proceed with winter sports competitions as scheduled, unless health and medical professionals advise otherwise. We will apprise the public on further decisions.
The Council of Presidents and Chancellors took this action out of a concern for the safety as well as the physical and mental health of our student-athletes, coaches, administrators, support staff, faculty, and fans. The rapid escalation of COVID-19 cases along the eastern seaboard heavily influenced the council’s decision as the data suggests that the African American and other minority communities are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19. The MEAC is committed to ensuring that the correct measures are in place to reduce exposure to the virus.
“The health and safety of our student-athletes continue to be our number one priority. We have made the decision to suspend all sports competitions after careful review of the current conditions and consideration of the potential exposure that regular travel to competitions may cause and ongoing extensive physical contact,” said Howard University President and Chair of MEAC Council of Presidents and Chancellors, Dr. Wayne A. I. Frederick. “While our competitions have been suspended, each member institution will plan ongoing engagement of all student-athletes to ensure optimization of their physical and mental well-being as they continue their matriculation.”
S.C. State President James E. Clark said, “I along with higher ed leaders across this country are having to make very tough decisions about how to navigate this pandemic and still provide a top-notch college experience for our students. This decision aligns with our commitment to keep our campus community safe."
S.C. State Director of Athletics Stacy Danley said, “Because our student-athletes and coaches make extraordinary contributions to our entire campus and Orangeburg community, this is an extremely heartbreaking decision. However, I support the decision because I know that it is the right call based on the information available to us today regarding the continued spread of the virus.”
“Our medical staff worked diligently to create an extensive health and safety return-to-campus plan for voluntary workouts. However, while we were prepared as an institution to execute that plan, I want to assure everyone associated with our university that this decision was made with the health and safety of our students, coaches, faculty, staff and the community in mind.”
MEAC institutions will continue the resocialization process for student-athletes, which encompasses mental and physical health counseling, strength and conditioning protocol, and compliance with all COVID-19 safety requirements.
Pough, for one, believes pro sports might get it right as they return to team meetings, workouts and game play, leaving college sports with a template for later.
"I think the NFL guys will probably set the actual tone for how it ought to be done," he said. "And I’m hoping baseball makes it, if there is any kind of way.
"Because I’ve never had an opportunity to, for instance, go to a baseball playoff game, because I’ve always been involved heavily with football."
"It has been a rough and tumble kind of existence,"
SC State head football coach Buddy Pough
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