OUA announces plan to return to sport in 2021-22

Sports may see modifications due to COVID-19 and budgetary restraints

The OUA is planning a return to sport in time for the next school year, modifications for which will be outlined by their recovery plan.

Ontario University Athletics (OUA) announced Jan. 22 it hopes to return to sport programming for the 2021-22 academic year and that it’s crafted a recovery plan to inform its strategy going forward.

“The OUA Recovery Plan will guide the conference and its 20 member institutions toward a return to sport, ensuring that the health and safety of all OUA participants are at the forefront of any decisions, while also taking into consideration factors such as members’ financial restrictions, institutional policies, as well as provincial and regional public health guidelines,” the OUA said in its press release.

OUA Chief Executive Officer, Gord Grace, explained in an interview with The Journal that the announcement came from months of observing the pandemic and consulting with necessary parties.

“Things have become a little clearer and that’s really why we’re rolling up the sleeves now. We have a better understanding about what the plans are in place for vaccinations and things of that nature; we also have a better understanding of the budget implications on campuses right now. Anything earlier really would have been premature,” he said.

According to Grace, the OUA is evaluating approximately five potential scenarios for a return to sport, but the verdict will ultimately depend on the opinions of public health officials and the universities themselves.

Grace did not outline all five scenarios but disclosed that scenarios other than returning to sports on a normal timeline might include a delayed start in the fall or delaying some open championships into the winter or spring.

While a return to sports will largely be dependent on widespread vaccination and the approval of public health advisors and universities, a significant obstacle will also be the pandemic’s financial impact on university athletic programs.

Many sports typically rely on long-distance travel and overnight stays, which may be unfeasible for some schools hit especially hard financially. One strategy the OUA is exploring is limiting regular season competition to more localized divisions within the conference. Grace noted, however, that this is more feasible with some sports than others.

“We’re trying to find creative ways of how we could cut back in certain areas. So, it’s for health reasons but also for financial reasons,” he said.

“Depending on the sport, that could have a different impact. We have 18 teams in both men’s and women’s soccer, whereas we have 11 in football. So, the structural differences that we make will be dependant on the sport and the number of participants.”

Other causes for different protocols between sports depend on both the feasibility of socially distanced play—something that’s easier with cross country and golf—as well as season start dates. Sports like football typically start their training camps in the first week of August, whereas hockey starts mid-October. Depending on the progress made against COVID-19, sports that start earlier may face shortened seasons while those that start later could face an easier time.

Grace also mentioned the OUA has been observing the situation in the US, which elected to carry on with university sports. While he said he would certainly not follow the lead of conferences that have not mitigated COVID-19’s risk, he believes other conferences have pursued interesting strategies the OUA may consider, if it were safe to do so.

“One of the [NCAA] conferences had a unique opportunity where they brought all the teams in for a tournament and it was essentially a short-term bubble. So, we’ve looked at those things but you know, we are a large conference. I remind people that we have 20 members and I haven’t found a university athletic conference in North America that’s bigger than us,” he said.

“Quite frankly, we do have a bit of a different mindset than some of the NCAA schools and programs. We saw a lot of NCAA football star players got COVID and came back, coaches of elite programs got COVID and came back. We’re not prepared to take on those risks and we don’t think we should.”

The OUA, by contrast, intends to return only if it’s safe for everyone involved.

“We’ll be cautious. At the forefront will be the safety of our student-athletes, of our coaches, of our referees, of people that run the games for us. And then the financial implications will guide what we can and can’t do. But my goal and the goal of the OUA members is to be offering sport next year, and that’s what we’re working on.”

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