Effects of COVID-19 on Collegiate Sports: Interviews with Players, Coaches, and Pros

by Jessy Epley
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Sticky bleachers, mouths full of concessions, and echoing cheers ringing through the stadium as the clock runs out: unmistakable feelings that every sports fan has experienced.

But as COVID-19 plagues college campuses, sporting events have taken on a rather eerie feel.

Empty stands, deafening silence, contact monitors, and the dreaded pregame nose swabs have become the new normal for today's athletes — that is, for those who are still able to play.

Close-contact sports mean a higher risk of virus contraction. High-stakes health risks weigh heavily upon the spirit of sports entertainment, and many athletes now face a career-impacting decision: to play or not to play in the midst of a global health pandemic.

Forgo vs. Forfeit: what's the difference?

By definition, forfeit means "to suffer a loss by wrongdoing or non-compliance." Meanwhile, forgo means "to let pass or leave alone." Student-athletes had the opportunity to forgo their fall 2020 season without penalty to their eligibility or scholarship commitments.

Leaving Behind A Season

The decision to forgo a season unexpectedly is intimidating for students, many of whom haven't been without sports since the beginning of their athletic career. We spoke with athletes across the country to help us paint a clearer picture of what life without sports looked like for the last year.

Image of Sage Surratt

Sage Surratt

Wide Receiver, Division 1 Football

Wake Forest University

Winston-Salem, NC

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How did foregoing the season affect your collegiate career — and you, physically or mentally?

Mentally, it was tough to watch my teammates on Saturdays and not be out there with them. I kept in contact with them throughout the season to see how things were going at school, though. Physically, I trained and worked to get better every day with my trainers. So, just taking care of my body and working on my game to get ready for next season.

What advice would you give other athletes who may find themselves in similar situations?

I would say to talk with your parents or whoever is in your circle about the decision. Seek their advice and what they think would be best for you. But ultimately, it's your own personal decision and you need to be comfortable with it.

What are some other routes student-athletes can take during their offseason to ensure they stay prepared for their return?

Find a gym or fields wherever you live to workout at. You don't have to have a trainer. There are plenty of programs online and videos you can watch to get bigger, faster, and stronger, and better at your position. It's just a matter of how much work you're willing to put in.

Image of Coach Darius Bryson

Coach Darius Bryson

Division 2 Track and Field Coach

Livingstone College

Salisbury, NC

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How did foregoing the season affect your coaching career — and you, physically or mentally?

I don't think it had a great effect on my coaching career. The hardest part about it was recruiting. It's hard to get kids to sign to your school when they can't visit your school. Also, we didn't get a chance to put more numbers out there for recruits to see how good our kids are or how they are progressing.

We are rebuilding our program, so showing kids what we currently have is very important, and I had some decent kids who I was excited to see. Through it all, though, we signed a very decent 2020 class in the middle of a pandemic.

Physically, I don't think I was negatively affected. If anything, I just worked out more because I had more time. Mentally, it was challenging, because as coaches we want to coach! Since there wasn't a lot of coaching going on, I did learn more last summer than I ever have from some of the top sprint coaches in the country through Zoom clinics, because everyone had free time they weren't used to.

What advice would you give athletes who may find themselves in similar situations?

I have zero problems with any athlete who wants to opt out because of COVID concerns. Their scholarship is still honored, and above all else, you want the athlete to feel comfortable or training is going to be worthless anyway and they won't be focused.

What are some other routes student-athletes can take during their offseason to ensure they stay prepared for their return?

The only thing you can do to be prepared for your return is be disciplined in working out on your own. Nothing harder in training than motivating yourself day in and day out to go train without a coach guiding you. Like I tell my athletes, it's easy to be average.

If my school opts out of the season, how will it affect my eligibility?

The NCAA passed a waiver that grants student-athletes the option to play or forgo the season without penalty to their eligibility. Foregoing the season will not result in the use of a redshirt year.

Tips for Staying Safe in the Locker Room

For athletes who chose to continue playing, the season looked much different. From increased safety protocols to a game without a crowd, many student-athletes faced challenges with adjusting to a new normal.

Image of Cameron Dollar

Cameron Dollar

Wide Receiver, Division 1 Football

University of North Carolina at Charlotte

Charlotte, NC

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What was different this season? Were there special protocols you had to take in order to play safely?

Everything was different, from the culture of college football all the way down to how you handled team meals. COVID changed the expectations around college football.

What advice would you give college athletes who forewent the season and still hope to go pro?

Not that I'm in any position to give anyone advice, but I would advise dudes who opted out to continue to make decisions that they believe are the best decisions for themselves and their families and to not worry about backlash. Regret nothing.

What is your secret for staying healthy in the locker room?

The secret to getting through this is being strong mentally. Finding your reason for getting up every morning and using that to power through every phase of adversity.

Image of Chazz Surratt

Chazz Surratt

Linebacker, Division 1 Football

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Chapel Hill, NC

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What was different this season? Were there special protocols you had to take in order to play safely?

I think the biggest differences were in the building — always having to wear masks — and in the meeting rooms. We had to be socially distant, as well as moving where we ate at to a different location, to hold more people who were socially distancing. And on the field, we had trainers 24/7 making sure we had masks on or were 6 feet apart.

What advice would you give college athletes who forewent the season and still hope to go pro?

To just be as ready as ever for your interviews with teams and your pro day/combine. Many teams will ask you why you didn't choose to play, so that'll be a question you need to be prepared for.

What is your secret for staying healthy in the locker room?

As far as COVID, it was to be socially distant the best I could and live within a bubble. I only interact with my teammates and staff at our facility. And to wear a mask at all times if I ever did have to go somewhere, like a grocery store or restaurant.

Image of Dante Williams

Dante Williams

Guard, Division 2 Basketball

Academy of Art University

San Francisco, CA

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What was different this season? Were there special protocols you had to take in order to play safely?

A lot is different. My particular conference has chosen to play in pods. Our Northern California schools are only competing against each other, and the same goes for our Southern California schools and our three Hawai'i schools. They don't want us to travel nor stay overnight. Our season is a lot shorter: a 12-game schedule compared to the normal 25+.

As far as protocols, we wear masks at all times, other than physically playing on the court. We wear them in the training room, in practice, in warm-ups, and on the bench. We must fill out an online waiver every day giving notice that we do not have any COVID symptoms. We also have a COVID test once every week in order to ensure we are all safe.

What advice would you give college athletes who forewent the season and still hope to go pro?

Don't take this year off mentally nor physically. It's easier to get out of shape than it is to get back in shape. You have to stay ready at all times, because you never know who else in the world is working to outwork you right now. Just because you aren't officially playing doesn't mean it's time to have a vacation. The grind never stops. Be a pro right now. Have that mindset.

What is your secret for staying healthy in the locker room?

No secret to it. Keep your mask up. Stay socially distanced as much as possible. Yes, we are in season, but any possible positive cases can shut that down in the blink of an eye.

Should I wear a mask while playing?

The NCAA recommends covering both the mouth and nose while playing sports. Approved mask adaptations and alternatives could make for a more comfortable experience for athletes who choose to continue with the season.

Professional Sports in a Pandemic

While collegiate athletes work to secure a spot in the big leagues, professional athletes depend on sports for an income. Many of them faced the risk of playing this season to continue perfecting their craft and fulfill their contracts. Here's what it was like for them.

Image of BeeJay Anya

BeeJay Anya

Forward, Professional Basketball Team

Caceres Basketball

Caceres, Spain

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What is it like this season? What safety protocols do you have to face before games and during practice?

This season was different just off the fact that we can't play with fans this year. The crowd always plays a big factor in games, so not playing with them was an adjustment. And we get tested weekly, so that was definitely different.

What advice would you give to student-athletes who forewent their 2020 season due to COVID-19 and are now hoping to go pro?

I would say just keep trying to get that work in as much as possible and stay patient, because nobody really knows what is going on. Just stay positive and hope your current film is enough.

What is your secret for staying healthy during basketball season?

Stay in the house!

Image of Rob Gray

Rob Gray

Point Guard, Professional Basketball Team

AS Monaco

Monaco, France

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What is it like this season? What safety protocols do you have to face before games and during practice?

The difference between this season and any other season I have ever experienced is not even comparable. For one, we are playing with zero fans in the gym at all. [This] takes away from the atmosphere and the energy that comes from both the home and away crowds. Secondly, we have to take safety measures to make sure we are healthy humans and no one has coronavirus, so we are tested twice a week.

What advice would you give to student-athletes who are foregoing their 2020 season due to COVID-19 and are now hoping to go pro?

I would tell anyone going pro from college that it only gets harder, from the competition to the odds stacked against you, the work you have to put it in to maintain and or continue to get better at your craft, and doing it all during such a weird time for the world.

What is your secret for staying healthy during basketball season?

A special tip for staying healthy is living a healthy lifestyle and making smart dieting choices, as well as investing in yourself daily, from stretching to lifting to extra conditioning to keep a great balance between strength and mobility, so you give yourself the best chance to stay injury-free.

Image of Manteo Mitchell

Manteo Mitchell

American Sprinter

Olympic Medalist, Team USA

Shelby, NC

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What is it like this season? What safety protocols do you have to face before meets and during practice?

When the pandemic hit, everyone was affected. As far as my "season"... track and field is my career, so no races meant no appearance fees and no opportunities to race (which is where most of that is made). Mentally, I had to regather after knowing that the Games were postponed. Reset the mission and go after it, again....

What advice would you give to student-athletes who forewent their 2020 season due to COVID-19 and are now hoping to go pro?

Ask yourself: Why? What are the pros and/or cons of doing either? Write them out. Typically, one will outweigh the other. That varies from person to person though. We aren't all made the same. We all have different goals. You have to make the decision that works best for YOU going forward.

What is your secret for staying healthy during the season?

TRAIN YOUR MIND! Set small, attainable (realistic) goals that lead up to your major goal. You're not going to become the greatest athlete in the world overnight. Things take time. Really perfect your craft and fuel your body as you would your car or anything else. It's the only one you have, so take care of it while you can.

Get your degree! That's something that can NEVER be taken from you. It's also something that will outlast athletic careers for most student-athletes. Not saying you can't go pro in your sport (I did it under extreme odds), but just staying this so you know I also have a degree. Be smart on and off the field of play!

Are some sports safer than others?

Because COVID-19 predominantly spreads through respiratory droplets, close-contact sports like football and basketball increase the risk of contracting the virus. These sports make it difficult to maintain a safe physical distance.

Does a Gap Year Affect the Professional Path?

Becoming a professional athlete usually begins with rigorous training and discipline from a young age. The career path to becoming a professional athlete varies by sport. For many pro sports players, four collegiate seasons serve as a pipeline to a professional team.

While student-athletes who forwent the season due to the coronavirus may be at a disadvantage with fewer clips on their highlight reel, the opportunity to play professionally remains open.

Here are a few inspiring athletes whose pathway to a professional career stepped outside of the typical athletic blueprint.

Vince Papale

Vince Papale played in a semi-pro football league before attending an open tryout that landed him a spot in the World's Football League — followed by a private workout with the Philadelphia Eagles. He went on to play 3 seasons in the NFL.

Thon Maker

Current NBA rules state that players are ineligible to declare for the draft directly out of high school. After graduating high school in 2015, Maker decided to side-step college by re-enrolling for another year in high school on the basis that his 2015 year was pressured by the balance of school work and basketball recruits.

After completing an additional year at Orangeville Prep, Maker successfully convinced the NBA that he was one year removed from high school based on his previous 2015 graduation and went on to be the 10th draft pick that year — at only 19 years old.

Raymond Seals

Raymond Seals entered the NFL with absolutely no college football experience. Seals did not dream of playing in the NFL when he was a student, but after his teacher convinced him to contact teams for a tryout, he landed a contract as a defensive end. He was later inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.

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