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NCAA decision to allow voluntary activities could have different implications for local schools

The Washington State Cougar weight rooms is a maze of stations and weights, shown Wednesday, June 21, 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A key decision pertaining to the return of college athletics was made on Wednesday when the NCAA’s Division I Council voted to lift a moratorium on voluntary athletic activities for Division I football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball programs, allowing student-athletes to participate in on-campus workouts starting on June 1.

“Additionally, Council members extended the blanket waiver allowing teams in those sports to require eight hours per week of virtual nonphysical activities through the end of June, recognizing that some student-athletes won’t be able return to campus or will not be comfortable doing so,” an NCAA statement read. “The status of voluntary athletics activities in all other sports and summer access activities in football and men’s and women’s basketball will be determined via electronic vote.”

While the decision gives some college athletes the option to return to campus facilities and weight rooms on June 1, and for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, schools must also abide by state, county and institutional guidelines before allowing football and basketball players to participate in voluntary workouts and activities on school grounds.

Regionally, the NCAA vote could have different implications for the four schools that sponsor some combination of football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball: Washington State, Gonzaga, Eastern Washington and the University of Idaho.

In Idaho, Gov. Brad Little recently allowed counties to move into Stage 2 of the Idaho Rebounds plan, giving indoor gyms and recreational facilities the ability to reopen their doors last Saturday – something that could conceivably allow Idaho’s student-athletes to take advantage of weight rooms and athletic facilities, albeit under certain restrictions, as soon as the moratorium period ends.

In Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee has stated small-group indoor fitness activities such as weight training and yoga can resume during the second phase of the state’s four-stage reopen plan. Even within state lines, that could mean something different for athletes at WSU than it could for those at Gonzaga and EWU.

While Whitman County, which is comprised of fewer than 50,000 residents, has already moved into Phase 2 of Inslee’s plan – potentially allowing WSU athletes the chance to return to weight rooms in smaller groups – Spokane County, with more than 500,000 people, is still awaiting approval from Inslee to advance to the second phase.

“We continue to work with state and local health officials, campus and the Pac-12 regarding the appropriate time to bring our student-athletes back to campus to continue training,” WSU athletic director Pat Chun said Wednesday in a statement.

According to various reports, the Pac-12’s presidents plan to meet next week to vote on lifting the conference’s suspension on voluntary athletics activities. Many of those discussions have already happened in the West Coast Conference, in which schools have agreed it won’t be necessary to implement a blanket rule preventing some institutions from partially reopening facilities if others can’t when the moratorium period expires.

“We’re in four different states,” GU athletic director Mike Roth said, “and our feeling was, we shouldn’t restrict one institution from doing something just because another institution can’t.”

In a phone interview Wednesday, Roth pointed at Utah, which has followed looser stay-home and social-distancing orders than some of its other neighbors such as California, Washington and Oregon. Therefore, it’s possible that schools like Brigham Young, the University of Utah and Utah State will be eligible to host student-athletes for limited campus workouts before their peers in the WCC, Pac-12 and Mountain West.

“Now is not the time for anybody to say, this is set in stone, because there hasn’t been much set in stone since this thing started,” Roth said. “But, from our standpoint, the discussions we’ve had as athletic directors – the 10 of us – again, we don’t need to be restricting each other.”

Roth suggested that when Gonzaga gets “the green light from Olympia,” the school will be prepared to reopen its facilities under various social-distancing guidelines that will limit the number of athletes in the weight room at a single time and ensure athletes are at least 6 feet from one another.

“They have it wired and I think we’re still waiting on a few pieces of equipment that’ll come in, but they have the procedures figured out and as does everyone around the country,” Roth said. “So, it’ll be limited capacity, it’ll be spacing, all kind of things that’ll come into play there. Just like it’s going to be when restaurants open or anything else.”

GU’s fall sport athletes usually trickle back to campus in late July or early August, but Roth indicated many of the men’s and women’s basketball players – especially those who come from other countries – stay on campus throughout June and July to take advantage of summer academic sessions.

A former junior varsity basketball player at Gonzaga in the early 1980s, Roth said he understands the insatiable desire college athletes have to train on a daily basis. He’s especially sympathetic to those who had postseason opportunities and full seasons shuttered by the coronavirus outbreak.

“I know I may have played 100 years ago when it was peach baskets and the 3-foot key, but as a student-athlete you wanted to work out every day,” Roth said. “You wanted to work on your sport every day. That’s been really hard, I believe, on every student-athlete throughout the country.

“… Now again, we’re talking about the state has to allow it and the institution has to allow it, other than just the NCAA factors that go into play.”

In addition to lifting the moratorium on campus activities, the council announced a series of waivers to offer flexibility to schools throughout the pandemic. Notably, the NCAA waived the minimum football-game attendance requirement for two years, lifted the requirement that FBS schools play 60% of their games against FBS schools or play five home games against FBS teams this season, and also lifted the requirement that FCS teams play at least 50% of their football games against FBS or FCS opponents.