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July 2, 2020

Amid Coronavirus, Are Mandatory Practices Safer Than “Voluntary” Workouts? Yes and No

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The NCAA’s Division 1 Council has officially released a six-week plan for teams to begin mandatory practices, and the starting date for these practices varies slightly from school to school. According to ESPN: “For teams that begin the season Labor Day weekend, required workouts will begin July 13, followed by an enhanced training schedule that begins July 24 and a normal, four-week preseason camp starting Aug. 7. Schools that open the season on Aug. 29 will begin required workouts July 6.” Plenty of programs have already started voluntary workouts (which aren’t really all that voluntary), so what are the differences between those and the NCAA’s new plan?

For starters, safety is enhanced at least a little bit. For example, the NCAA has waived roster limits to prevent athletes from traveling home in the time between the end of voluntary workouts and the beginning of the regular season. The logic behind this is that keeping teams on campus prevents athletes from carrying coronavirus from their campus to their families back home. So although rosters will be bigger (and arguably at increased risk for spreading the disease), the risk of coronavirus spreading off campus is at least partly mitigated. That is one of the safety tensions that teams will experience as they navigate the NCAA’s new plan moving forward.

The good(ish) news is that, by and large, mandatory practices are actually safer than “voluntary” workouts, because mandatory practices, unlike voluntary workouts, are considered countable athletically related time. That means the NCAA’s loose 20-hour weekly limit will be in place starting in July, so coaches will not be allowed to exceed 20 hours per week of practice, film, and conditioning sessions on athletic time logs. Although the 20-hour rule is deeply flawed, the limit is actually more beneficial when games are not being played. It will be harder for coaches to fudge the numbers on athletic time logs when they aren’t accounting for travel and competition, so they’re more likely to truly stick to a 20-hour limit.

However, just because mandatory practices are starting soon doesn’t mean voluntary workouts will necessarily end. The NCAA requires coaches to give athletes one day off per week, but a “day off” in the NCAA doesn’t necessarily mean a rest day—it just means a day in which “all countable athletically related activities shall be prohibited,” per the Division 1 Manual. That means that a coach can call for a “voluntary” workout on a Sunday, and, because voluntary workouts aren’t countable, it will count as a day off, even if athletes have a mandatory practice on Monday morning. In other words, there are still ways that coaches can push their athletes to work beyond their 20-hour limit and still stay within NCAA guidelines. 

Perhaps most importantly, mandatory practices require medical staff members to be in attendance, while voluntary workouts do not. According to Bylaw 17.1.6, “An institutional staff member with current certification in first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automatic external defibrillator (AED) use must be present any time a student-athlete participates in a physical, countable athletically related activity.” Voluntary workouts are not countable athletically related activities, while mandatory practices are, which means more medical staff will be present, and that’s a win for athlete safety.

That’s also one of the problems with “voluntary” workouts. Although trainers and sports medicine staff can attend these workouts, their presence is not required, coaches are only allowed to oversee certain skill-related activities and conditioning sessions outlined in Bylaw 17 (which, again, calls the voluntary nature of these workouts into question). These situations pose safety hazards, as absent trainers and coaches increase injury risk. Both will have to be present for mandatory practices, which, pandemic aside, should create an environment that is at least a little safer for athletes than “voluntary” workouts.

Make no mistake, though—college athletes are still at risk. One thing that likely will not change moving forward is coronavirus testing procedures among teams, and although the NCAA has cleared mandatory practices to begin in July, the NCAA has yet to standardize or require coronavirus testing in locker rooms. I would assume it unlikely that the NCAA—which has gone on the record stating it has no legal duty to ensure the health and safety of college athletes—will step in, and only a few D1 programs have taken the initiative to cancel their seasons. Mandatory practices might enhance safety from an injury perspective, but it is important to keep in mind that practicing at all during a pandemic poses risks to athletes. Safety in college sports is still up in the air.

Follow Katie Lever on Twitter/Instagram for more NCAA policy updates: @Leverfever

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