When spring sports were canceled last March, the Wolf Pack basically waived goodbye to its athletes for the rest of the semester as they went home for spring break and never returned to campus while finishing the school year online. With the fall sports season being canceled to begin this academic year, Nevada plans on taking a different approach.
“Something we learned last spring when we canceled and pulled the plug on spring sports and didn’t have baseball, softball, tennis, track, golf and said, ‘Sorry, your season is over’ all of the student-athletes went home, we closed down our facilities, and looking back at that we might have made a mistake at some level," Nevada athletic director Doug Knuth said last Thursday. "What we know about sports and the concept of team is there’s a camaraderie there, a social and emotional and psychological support system there, and last spring we just kind of stopped. And this is nationally, not just Nevada and Wolf Pack athletics. But nationally, everything shut down last spring. As I look back at that, there are things we could do better.
"As we’re going through this a second time, we have to do better. We need to figure out a better way to support the psychological, emotional, social and what it means to be on a team. We’re not playing games, we’re not competing, we’re not going to have a win-loss record here in the foreseeable future, but there’s a way we can support our athletes, and one way we can do that is keep them engaged, keep them connected, and it’s not going to be like a regular practice. We won’t have that intensity in a regular season when you’re preparing for games, but there’s something we have to figure out and we don’t have those answers yet on what that looks like, but I think we have to figure that out."
Knuth said the Wolf Pack athletes currently on campus, which includes the football and basketball programs, will stay in Reno and continue to practice. For football, that means practicing in August for a season that may or may not happen in February. But the Wolf Pack believes that is the right course of action after all of its athletes were sent home last March with minimal connection to its team outside of some Zoom conferences.
"There’s something that matters about being on a team, being with your teammates in workouts," Knuth said. "It’s good for your physically, it’s good for you mentally and obviously socially and emotionally it matters. We’re going to try and figure out how to keep our athletes engaged at some level. I don’t know how we’re going to do that yet. Obviously there are costs that go along with that, and we have a very, very seriously budget problem and situation here, so how much we can do for our athletes this fall is to be determined.”
Nevada said athletes who are on campus will continue to get weekly COVID-19 tests, which comes with a cost. The Wolf Pack has done its testing with Nevada State Public Health Laboratory, which is located on UNR's campus. Knuth didn't provide the specific costs for the Wolf Pack's weekly testing protocols but said it is "pretty significant," especially if a player tests positive.
"The other side is the caring for athletes if somebody does test positive and what you do next and all of the additional testing we have to do, the EKG testing and all of the stuff that goes along with that with the return to play is complicated," Knuth said. “When somebody does test positive, you separate and quarantine and they have a 10- or 14-day self-isolation, but that’s not the end of it. You don’t just jump back into playing. There’s heart testing and other stuff you have to do to make sure the COVID, whether you were symptomatic or asymptomatic, didn’t impact them in any other long-term way. There’s some significant testing that goes on and those are expensive. There’s a lot that goes into it. Doing this with football and men’s and women’s basketball throughout the summer, when you start entering or bringing in other athletes, upward of 400 athletes come back, then the costs can really go up.”
Knuth said it is unknown whether all of the Wolf Pack's athletes will return to campus when the fall semester begins Monday. UNR is using a hybrid return of in-person and online classes for its students this semester.
“We’re talking about that right now to see what’s possible," Knuth said. "The fall practice and competition, baseball and softball and tennis and golf, have all been cut. There will be no fall competition for any of those sports, but like I said before there’s something about the social and emotional side of it, I want to figure that out if we can. I don’t have the answer and don’t know how to pay for it considering where we are financially this year, but I know it’s important and because it’s important we’re going to really think hard to try and figure it out.
“Maybe some teams in the bubble now stay in the bubble and keep practicing until Oct. 1 and other teams stay outside of the bubble and come in Oct. 1. I don’t know. We have to figure out a way to manage it. It’s a significant amount of work for our medical team. They are over-worked and stressed just handling the three teams that are here. To think about bringing in six, eight, 10 other teams and all the stuff they go through, that’s really hard on our medical team as well. It’s in progress. If we can’t figure it out and can’t do it, that’s one answer, but we’re certainly going to try.”
The Wolf Pack is projecting a $10 million-plus budget deficit this fiscal year and announced Friday it would lay off 20 non-coaching staffers stemming from a COVID-19-induced budget shortfall. The Mountain West voted last week to postpone the fall sports season until the spring, although that does not guarantee the Wolf Pack will play any sports this season.
“I know our athletes want to play," Knuth said. "I know our coaches want to play. For volleyball, soccer, football and cross country teams, we’re going to try and figure out a way for them to play this spring.”
Nevada football coach Jay Norvell has said he believes Wolf Pack athletes are safer on campus and in the athletic department's protocols than being back home. While the athletic department hasn't released data from its COVID testing, the Wolf Pack has been pleased with its testing results thus far.
“In the three sports that were here in the summer – football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball – they did a remarkable job, they did an incredible job adhering to and following the safety protocols that our team doctors and our medical professionals put in place," Knuth said. "They really took it seriously, they followed it close and did everything we asked for them to play this fall.”
Knuth also said all Wolf Pack athletes on financial aid will continue to get that aid for the rest of the year even if sports aren't played in 2020-21.