CGN Roundtable: Questions About COVID and the 2021 Season

There has been a lot of discussion among the College Gym News editors regarding what the 2021 season will look like—along with questions stemming from the potential implications of a shortened or canceled (please no!) season—so we decided to take that conversation to the official roundtable. 

Disclaimer: These answers are based on our own opinions and knowledge of how the NCAA handled the canceled 2020 season. They are not based on any hard evidence of what teams will be doing moving forward.

If the NCAA allows for each conference to make its own decisions in lieu of making an executive decision, what happens if some teams have a season and some teams don’t?

Elizabeth: This is tough. I think a big question for me is if the NCAA does the minimum again like it did for 2020 and only canceled championship meets. If so, what are teams working toward if they choose to “risk” things and compete anyway? If there isn’t an NCAA postseason and we have only some conferences hold championships—but not a full cancelation across the board—I think we still see teams in more open states holding meets, or at the very least exhibitions. Universities and teams will be looking to make money wherever possible—you know a team like LSU is holding exhibitions whether there is a real season or not.

Emily M: I’ll be pretty frustrated if this happens. The NCAA has shown such a lack of leadership, though, it won’t be too surprising to me if it passes the buck again. This would mean that conference championships would be the only “postseason” competitions (depending of course on what NCGA and USAG choose to do, though I’d imagine they would follow the NCAA). It would mean fewer meets, I think, and maybe even no out of conference competitions; everyone would stay relatively local, conference records wouldn’t be affected, and conferences would still be able to name regular season and championship titles.

Jenna: I can’t imagine that happening—it seems like it’ll be either all or nothing—and yet we’ve seen how indecisive the NCAA is so it somehow makes perfect sense that they would leave it up to the conferences. If that happens, it’ll feel like a shell of a season compared to what we’re used to, and yet I’m sure we’ll savor every moment we can get of the sport we love. I just hope safety is prioritized, especially that of the unpaid student athletes who really won’t get a say in the matter.

Kalley: I am keeping my eye on what happens with college football because I think all other sports will follow a similar path. It would feel silly to me if there is no postseason and you have teams opting to sit out and teams still opting to compete. I know universities both want to and need to make money, but is risking the health of your athletes and staff worth it?

Katherine: The NCAA would probably cancel championship meets if some conferences didn’t have a season and others did. But I think a lot of the effects of this would be felt in a vacuum apropos of each school/conference. It would be heartbreaking for those teams who don’t get a season, but I think the ones still allowed to compete would absolutely do it under modified schedules. Just because there’s no postseason doesn’t mean you can’t rack up team scores and break records. Plus, there’s always a “regular season” conference champion to be crowned. By no means would these seasons be seen as legitimate if they happened while others didn’t, but they could still happen. 

Talitha: I’m not sure what would happen. Season would most likely go ahead anyway and individual universities or conferences would have to address the problem of eligibility and scholarships directly with the NCAA. Whenever possible, however, as others have said, I believe that schools will go ahead with sports, as they’re really worried about the money loss caused by the pandemic. A slightly different question I have is what would happen if some conferences/states are affected more than others by external forces. Say, in the most likely scenario, if some areas of the country are shut down again because of a second wave and others are not. My sense is that the whole NCAA season would be suspended/cancelled, as it occurred this year, but it may raise some further questions. For example, can a not-shut-down conference organize its conference championship if other conferences are off? What about if some teams in the conference can’t compete while others can?

Will we see athletes opting to defer a year in response to the possibility that some or a majority of their coursework will be completed online in 2021?

Elizabeth: I think some will defer because of academic reasons, but I think it’s more likely we see incoming freshmen gymnasts defer because they won’t want the uncertainty of a partial or missed season, even if the NCAA does something about granting extra eligibility. It’s not the exact same scenario, but we already saw Boise State’s Courtney McGregor cite the uncertainty as part of her reason for not returning for a fifth year.

Emily M: I agree with everyone and think it is a possibility. I could especially see gymnasts who have been putting off having long term injuries taken care of using 2021 as a medical hardship year. Why not get that wonky Achilles on track in a year that is likely to be weird anyway?

Jenna: If I were still in college I would be seriously considering taking a year off, so it won’t surprise me if we see deferrals. One particular concern I have is for international students. With the rising cases in the United States, will they want to risk their health coming here? Would they be allowed to return home during breaks?

Kalley: Like Elizabeth said, I can definitely see freshmen opting to defer a year. I think that will create an interesting scenario with certain teams that have already seen athletes do that due to Olympic training; just imagine some of those 2021 classes. As far as the returning athletes, I honestly have no idea. I guess another question I would have if that happens is will there be a cap on how many athletes are allowed to do that and maintain their scholarship? 

Katherine: I don’t anticipate it being for academic reasons so much as athletics, i.e. partial/canceled season like Elizabeth said. But also, I don’t know if they’d know about that early enough to defer. I feel like a partial/canceled season wouldn’t be confirmed until the fall when everyone would already be on campus. I guess people could defer because the risk of this outweighs the reward, but I don’t think it happening on a large scale with the exception of international students.

Talitha: Yes, I can see this happening, especially in the case of international students. Not only will students potentially not feel comfortable traveling to the US this upcoming August/September but, in case of a second wave, they may wish to be home with their families. Furthermore, as we saw this spring, a second wave will likely not spread at the same time around the world. International students may also be afraid of being stuck in the US if their country of origin closes its borders.

What sort of changes might we see (or would you like to see) to the typical NCAA gym schedules we’ve become accustomed to? More quad meets? More double meet weekends?

Elizabeth: My first thought is there should be more quad meets, but when you really think about it, that doesn’t really make sense. Quad meets would still only present one scoring opportunity and would have more gymnasts in a packed space on the floor—not helping social distancing all that much. However, I do think we might see less travel and double meet weekends where the same teams face each other multiple times or away teams visit multiple teams in the area in the same weekend. Think what Alaska does every season but for all the non-rich teams. Getting more bang for their buck, in other words.

Emily M: My favorite meets are the weirdo quads that usually happen early and very late in the season, and I think we can say goodbye to them, unfortunately. I’m hoping we see more interesting local duals. Illinois at Illinois State, why not? Brown at RIC? Centenary at LSU? They might not be the most competitive meets, but it would be a fun way to change things up. Plus, it’s the score that matters, right?

Kalley: I’m wondering if we will see any virtual meets. I think quad meets are more risky due to the increased number of athletes using the equipment. I could see more double meet weekends, maybe, to limit the amount of traveling and keeping the number of athletes using the equipment to a minimum while still adding more NQS scoring opportunities. But I’m really not sure. 

Katherine: Virtual meets are a fascinating concept. I guess it’s possible that teams could complete a meet from their home gyms at the same time as the ones they’re “competing against” and the scores could be added up from afar. Virtual judging would be tough, though, and it seems like judges coming to campus defeats the purpose. Also, who knows if student-athletes will be on campus? What if another outbreak forces everyone to go home? If the chips fall in the right places, I think it could happen, but it’s a lot of chips to fall.

Talitha: As others have said, more quad meets would hardly solve the problem of both social distancing and scoring opportunities. More double meet weekends are more like it, but, as Elizabeth said, the way this makes the most sense would be for two teams to compete against the same opponent twice in the same weekend. Another option would be for the regular season to be shorter. Say, seven meets, with the usual six (minus the highest) counting toward the national qualifying score. Except for regionals and nationals, it would also be sensible for teams to meet only within their own conference to geographically limit the potential spread of the virus.

If the season is abbreviated or canceled, what will that mean for athlete eligibility?

Elizabeth: I’m afraid anything less than a canceled season will result in no eligibility awarded back. Meaning, if a season happens at all and is more than the number of meets that’s typically the cutoff for redshirting in a regular-length season, the NCAA will view it as “enough.” However, if the season is canceled altogether, no doubt there will be eligibility given back (up to the schools’ discretion), creating a whole bunch of additional questions and problems.

Emily M: This is so messy. Honestly, I truly believe the NCAA will only award a sweeping year of eligibility to everyone if sports are cancelled for the entire year—because it will include football. 

Jenna: This is such a complex issue, but I think it depends on what happens in the fall. I have a strong suspicion that if the college football season is disrupted then that’ll be it for NCAA sports for the entire academic year, or at least until there’s a vaccine. In that case, I can see everybody losing a year of eligibility because offering additional eligibility across the board would just be a huge headache and likely an insurmountable financial burden for colleges that are already very short on cash.

Kalley: I agree with what Elizabeth said. And given the limited number of scholarships available for DI gymnastics teams, it gives me a headache to think about all the financial problems a fully canceled season will cause. 

Katherine: I concur that additional eligibility will not be awarded unless the season is entirely canceled. But I think the season being canceled will likely stem from fall sports being canceled first, and it will be harder to grant eligibility and scholarships without that critical revenue from football. The AD of my future school, Florida State, put it best when he said “God help us” if football is canceled. Even if you just see it as “sportsball” and don’t care about it, football may or may not determine the fate of your faves this season, so it’s worth paying attention to that storyline.

Talitha: I agree with Elizabeth, too. Except for a whole canceled season, it will be difficult for athletes to claim further eligibility, next year even more than in 2020. After all, there is a precedent now.

If athlete eligibility is impacted and scholarships become more scarce due to a canceled season, do you think we will see more athletes transfer to pursue a scholarship vs walking on to their current team?

Elizabeth: Hmm… I think we see some, especially those that might have scholarships “taken away” and can’t afford to stay at that school anymore, but I don’t think it’ll be the norm or even a trend. There aren’t that many scholarships to begin with. I do know I’m glad I’m not a coach that might have to deal with a potential scholarship reshuffling if there’s a canceled season and the next four classes have gymnasts that want to come back for an additional year. It doesn’t just mess up the following year; it messes up the next four (or more).

Emily M: I agree that we may see it happen in a few cases, but sparingly. I think a fair number of walk-ons have chosen their school for academics or location; take UCLA for example. I don’t see anyone leaving the Bruins even if they’re offered a scholarship somewhere else.  

Kalley: I’m not sure that we will see a lot of this, but I’m sure it will happen. I think a large part of it will depend on the education side—and whether transferring helps or hurts the athlete’s path to obtaining their degree—but we shall see. I do not envy the coaches who will be in charge of making some of those calls and solving that financial rubix cube. 

Katherine: I feel like those who have their scholarships pulled won’t exactly have an abundance of other schools to choose from since everyone is going through varying degrees of financial duress. So I wouldn’t say we’ll see “more” transfers, though there could be a couple. 

Talitha: Perhaps, but if scholarships become scarcer (due to less programs, more demand or less budget for them), I doubt it will mean more funding opportunities for walk-ons. Rather, what we could see is more gymnasts moving to universities close to home to avoid the costs of traveling and, potentially, of rent. Moreover, the 2022 freshman class will include so many talented former elites that, if scholarships become scarcer, they will be the ones likely benefiting from them, at the expense of existing gymnasts. As others said, if a reshuffling happens, it will be heartbreaking for athletes as much as for caring coaches.

Aside from travel, where else do you foresee teams making budget cuts?

Elizabeth: I mean half these teams had leos they didn’t even wear in 2020, so I think that’s the obvious place (if I see Florida with yet another new pink leo in 2021, I might actually scream). I also think we see fewer teams taking on random walk-ons and even fewer taking non-competing members to away meets.

Emily M: I have a feeling we’ll see smaller “Nike Christmases” this year, and I could see teams cutting back on more frivolous things like matching training leos. All these gymnasts have tons of leos from J.O. Why not use them?

Kalley: Leos, limiting the number of traveling athletes and staff (especially if there is additional COVID testing costs involved).  

Katherine: Student-athletes get a lot of apparel and other freebies that will likely be limited under budget cuts, so “Nike Christmas” probably won’t be as merry. Maybe they’ll just give stuff to the freshmen and the upperclassmen will have to make do with what they already have other than a few new things.

Talitha: As others said, leotards and other sports apparel, such as tracksuits, T-shirts, backpacks and so forth, should be the first to be cut, followed by the number of staff and non-competing athletes traveling to away meets. What I hope will not happen is for teams to make cuts on such things as healthy lunches and other devices that work toward the wellbeing of student-athletes.

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Article by the editors of College Gym News

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