As Bethany Lutheran athletic director Don Westphal said last week, there were no sports administration classes you could have taken to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic.

So this week, as the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and the MIAC took different paths for the upcoming fall seasons, nobody knows right now which schedule is best.

The Northern Sun announced that the fall seasons, which had already been delayed a week, would be pushed back another two weeks, with practices beginning in early September and games about three weeks after that.

The Northern Sun is hoping that extra time gives athletes an opportunity to safely return to campus, along with the rest of the students, and have opportunities for competition, that are sustainable with strict health protocols.

It’s good to see the Northern Sun isn’t rushing into this decision, given the unpredictable nature of this pandemic. There is plenty at stake for the athletes, many of whom have been training all summer, hoping to get a chance to play this fall. However, the Northern Sun’s decision is hardly final, and there are many meetings and announcements to come before anyone steps on a field or court to practice.

The MIAC pushed nearly all of its fall sports back into the spring, hoping that by then, there is some progress made in the pandemic that will allow games to be played, under somewhat normal conditions.

Both plans have merit; both plans have flaws.

It still seems unlikely that the Northern Sun will be able to offer high-risk sports such as football, soccer and volleyball. The amount of contact between teammates and opponents makes it impossible for social distancing. No amount of disinfectant can completely wipe out this aggressive virus.

So the Northern Sun will have to determine how to test its athletes and what to do when positive tests pop up, which is inevitable.

The NCAA is expected to announce soon a plan for fall championships. If the NCAA eliminates those tournaments, the corresponding sport will likely be shut down. The cost of a testing plan may also be a final dagger.

The MIAC plan seems to be a bit more proactive, already announcing the high-risk sports will be played in the spring. That, too, is optimistic, but it does give athletes some kind of goal, even though it also comes with challenges for rescheduling.

There is no way the smaller universities can handle the financial burden of testing, and by spring, perhaps there will be a vaccine that makes it safer to compete.

Nobody wants to deny the athletes of their competitions. Sports is somethng that lured these players to campus, and it’s part of the college experience.

But nobody wants to put young people in harm’s way. Or anyone else that comes in contact with these athletes.

Play now or play later? It’s a tough call.

Maybe in the future, college classes will be offered that deal with ways to conduct competitions during a pandemic. Surely, books will be written about 2020, and studies will be done about which plans worked and which plans failed.

For now, though, there seems to be no right or wrong answers. There’s still too much that is unknown.

Chad Courrier is the Free Press sports editor. To contact him, call 507-344-6353, email at ccourrier@mankatofreepress.com or follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.

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