Sport Over Safety? The Tough Choice for College Gymnastics This Season

As COVID-19 has brushed nearly every spot on the globe, it has caused trillions of dollars in economic turmoil, disrupted global travel, and been the sole cause of more than 1.5 million deaths around the world. The risks and uncertainty caused by the deadly virus has upended normal life as we know it, causing schools to move online, people to work from home, and major events like graduations, weddings, and other important ceremonies to be moved virtually or be canceled entirely. With the cases rising exponentially and the death toll being at the highest point since the beginning of the pandemic, college gymnastics programs around the United States were drawn to one conclusion: “right now seems like a good time to have a gymnastics meet.”

After the complete lack of safety measures taken at the LSU Gym 101 preseason meet, the upcoming 2021 NCAA gymnastics season has been met with a lot of skepticism. How can college programs prove they are capable of safely hosting an intercollegiate competition with teams coming from all parts of the United States if they can’t even safely host their own internal meet? The culprit is not just LSU, teams across the country are hosting practices without social distancing, without face masks, without taking the responsibility to put the safety of the people before the gymnastics.

Unsurprisingly the NCAA is showing as little leadership as possible to control the virus transmission rates. They released the return to sport guidelines for programs that does a really great job “encouraging” NCAA programs to comply with local safety guidelines and rules. Thanks, NCAA! The guidelines released dump most of the responsibility upon state and local government guidelines to curb the spread of the virus. What isn’t being considered is how vastly COVID restrictions and compliance differs from state-to-state. For example, New York announced a mandatory quarantine for travelers coming into the state, capped indoor gatherings, and limited non-essential business operations. Texas on the other hand (and notably is the host for the 2021 Women’s NCAA Gymnastics Championships) is still allowing recreational sports facilities, religious services, and personal care services to operate at full capacity. The stark contrast shown in just these two states already highlights how tricky it’s going to be hosting interstate meets.

Interestingly SEC commissioner Greg Sankey announced conference schools can face a cumulative penalty of $1,000,000 if there is evidence of non-compliance with COVID safety protocols. Several of the big football schools have already been fined for breaking protocols. My biggest question is if this is being applied across the SEC why hasn’t LSU Gymnastics been fined after all of this showed up on the broadcast?

The screenshots above expose an institutional problem. Yes, the athletes do have the responsibility to wear their mask at all times, socially distance, and refrain from attending gatherings, but it’s the responsibility of the coaches, the responsibility of the schools, the responsibility of the NCAA, the responsibility of local/state/national governments to enact clear safety protocols, provide the necessary safety equipment, and to hold people accountable.

To have a remote shot of safely hosting a season, we need to go beyond the minimum to stop the spread. And if collegiate programs continue to operate in the way they are, well we’re going to be in this for the long run.

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