COVID-19 Focus: How College Athletics Has Been Impacted By The Pandemic
Nearly every industry has been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic in some way, whether it’s a suffering business struggling to stay afloat, a company that’s struggling to meet booming demand, or a public service delivering public needs. By interviewing experts in their respective fields, Higher Rock Education examines the short-term and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic in a wide range of industries.
Rick Canter is the Deputy Athletics Director for Longwood University in Farmville, Va. Canter is on Longwood’s leadership team and has managed the athletic department’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the interview below, Canter discusses the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Longwood athletics, particularly the impact on the department’s budget.
COVID-19 Focus Series:
Higher Rock Education: How long you’ve been in athletics and what is your current role at Longwood?
Rick Canter: “I’m currently the Deputy Athletics Director at Longwood University. I’ve been in multiple roles since I came to Longwood, but I’ve been here for 10 years. I started out as a strength and conditioning coach and have progressed into the administrative role I’m in now.
“The unit that I oversee is the Student-Athlete Enhancement Team and that’s a focus group that includes sports medicine, sports performance and academics. It’s something that’s very student-athlete engagement driven. My role is to have an internal focus and tackling COVID-19 was something that myself and my team were tasked to navigate through within our athletic department.”
HRE: Like most businesses, athletics has had to deal with the impacts of COVID-19 in the last year. What have been the biggest challenges that Longwood athletics has had to overcome?
RC: “As an athletic department, the first element was the shock and awe. Being in a leadership role, that’s something that you have to be very mindful of. COVID-19 is a multifaceted issue that impacted all areas. Obviously, we had to take into consideration the health of the community when making those overarching decisions. Those decisions are going to have impacts in a multitude of areas.
“We had to tackle the things we didn’t know. We had to get comfortable with not knowing all of the unknowns. That was a big challenge and there was a lot of complexity. We’ve never had to work through a pandemic, so we had to sort through what is true, what isn’t true, what are we allowed to do. We had to balance that amount of complexity with, once we learned various aspects of how the virus is spread, the different amenities that we’re held responsible by, including the NCAA, the Big South Conference, and the Commonwealth of Virginia.
HRE: How did Longwood adapt to CDC guidelines for social distancing and sanitation?
RC: “It was very much a balancing act. What we didn’t realize when we first started was that the guidelines could differ from state-to-state and even in different regions within a state. States were assimilating the standards at different rates. Just because the CDC had its own set of guidelines, doesn’t mean that a particular state, health agency or a particular region is going to immediately adopt it. There were delays in the standard.
“The CDC always helped in establishing a precedent, but we had to balance the CDC guidelines, which were really transcending, with the NCAA guidelines. We then had to take the NCAA requirements and balance those with our institution and make a final decision whether or not we should even compete.
“At the time that COVID-19 hit, there was a domino effect within various conferences with different schools canceling the remainder of their schedule. Obviously, the Ivy League was a trend setter in cancellations, especially in the beginning. Eventually, down the line, we had to look at the guidelines to figure out how we could maintain an environment that’s safe to train in. Once we figured out that we could provide a safe environment, we discussed other safety issues. Would we be able to allow fans? How often do student-athletes need to participate in surveillance testing? What are the costs? If something we implemented didn’t work well, how would we adjust?”
HRE: How did the department handle vaccinations, among the coaches, staff and student-athletes?
RC: “From a vaccination standpoint, Longwood was very fortunate to get the vaccine early for staff. A lot of our staff were inoculated around February or March .
“It was highly encouraged for our students to get vaccinated. In the event that a student-athlete decides to opt out for medical, religious or other reasons, they’re subject to additional NCAA testing. We did have a certain degree of cases within our department this year, but it certainly didn’t compare to what many schools in our conference and across the country handled.”
HRE: Were any staff or employees at Longwood furloughed or asked to take a pay cut?
“Longwood employees had a pay furlough that was for the fiscal year, but that’s over now. From an athletics perspective, we were lucky. Granted we did have some hiring freezes for positions that were open in a cost-saving measure incorporated by the institution. So, we had a couple of positions we weren’t allowed to hire right away.
“The biggest question mark for us was what the associated costs were going to be. We rely heavily on our university health department and, luckily, they had secured a good number of antigen-based testing. We were fortunate that our partnership with the Virginia Department of Health allowed us to secure a lot of the bionex testing. We ended up spending roughly $30,000 to $40,000 in testing.
“That wasn’t the case for a lot of schools. We still had to do some PCR testing, but some schools across the country have spent upwards of $4 million on testing.”
HRE: How has the pandemic impacted the overall budget for the department?
RC: “From the pandemic perspective, there was a ripple effect when the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Tournament was canceled. That was an impact that was felt from every institution, because the revenue that’s generated from that tournament is distributed to all member institutions. Longwood has a certain amount of money that we receive each year and we rely on that number in order to fund certain aspects of our department. We had to make some adjustments, but overall, we were fortunate that it didn’t impact us as severely as we feared at first.”
HRE: How did Longwood handle working remotely versus coming to the office?
RC: “I worked remotely until the middle of May . One of the benefits of being in a small town such as Farmville, Va., was that there weren’t many people around.
“Longwood shut down in the middle of March and during that time we worked remotely from home. Progressively, because the office was empty, I started to come in and a few other people started to come in around that same time. We still kept the doors closed; we were all wearing masks. It wasn’t until August  that the department told staff that they could come back and work in person.
“I met with our executive team on a regular basis over Zoom and we discussed how we could structure coming into the office. We worked on that strategy throughout the summer. We were able to successfully bring back men’s and women’s basketball during the summer and eventually, once the semester started, we had an idea of how we were going to be able to operate. It was a little bizarre, but everybody adapted pretty quickly.
“Once we began to bring people back, the challenge shifted to how we’d handle the spring. We didn’t have any teams compete in the fall, so all 14 of our sports competed in the spring. That was a very arduous process. The spring was certainly challenging with all of our teams competing, scheduling around their needs.”
HRE: What was the university’s response this past year in handling classes?
RC: “We remained in-person all year. I actually taught a kinesiology class in the fall of 2020. It was challenging. We could only have a certain amount of people in the classroom, depending on the size of the classroom and the spacing. I couldn’t have everybody in my class come in person, so I ended up having half the class in person and the other half online. The class was on Tuesday and Thursday, so I’d alternate who was in-person and online.
“We did adjust the fall semester and ended it earlier than normal. We ended at Thanksgiving break and students didn’t return to campus for the second semester until later than typical. It was a challenge and it certainly wasn’t a normal year in dealing with the restrictions, but we were in-person the whole time.”
HRE: How do you believe COVID-19 will continue to impact college athletics moving forward, both in the short term and long term?
RC: “There are other things that we didn’t think of that could be good in the end. For example, how we look at other health ailments. For example, how will we approach the flu season moving forward? I think there could be some good things from that perspective.
“I do think there will be some financial ramifications next year that will continue to pose challenges for departments like it already has. Many of the bigger schools, Power Five’s, had to take out loans this past year because their expenses are so high. We’ll continue to see ripple effects down the line on a case-by-case basis.
“For college athletics, I think the timing of this is a perfect storm. The one-time transfer rule is now on for all sports, student-athletes can now benefit financially from their name, image and likeness. That just recently started. This is a very important time for college athletics. I’d say that if you can look at the pandemic from a positive perspective, it’s important in how you change and adapt to it. All of the change that we adapted to, in regards to, the pandemic can help us in adapting to all of the changes that are coming to college athletics.”