NCAA Releases Return to Championships Guidelines

The NCAA has released Return to Championships Guidelines for all non-basketball sports after earlier announcing that the Division I basketball championships would be hosted entirely in Indiana. The guidelines feature mostly standardized policies and procedures for all sports, though there is a short section at the end specific to wrestling. Read the whole document here, and continue on for a summary of the more interesting parts.

Defining Tiers
There are three Tiers of personnel defined in the document. Tier 1 is wrestlers, coaches, trainers, officials, and others with close contact to athletes. Tier 2 is team and event staff that come into contact with Tier 1 but can reasonably keep distance and wear masks at all times. Tier 3 is people who provide event services but do not come into close contact with Tiers 1 and 2. Page 45 lists some examples of defined tiers for the Division I championships.

Tier 1 and 2 individuals must have a negative COVID test within 48 hours of travel to the event and will be subject to further testing by the NCAA at the championships site. This group is not to have contact with any non-tiered individuals for the duration of their trip. This includes family members outside of the tested group. “Fans are not permitted to interact with any student-athletes, coaches, team personnel, or officials (all Tier 1 or Tier 2 personnel) at any time. This also applies to family members of these individuals.” Furthermore, those in Tiers 1 and 2 are encouraged and expected to take meals in their hotel rooms and only eat at a restaurant if seated outdoors.

Team Guidelines
Practice at the competition site is also highly regulated. “Each team should have an exclusive time period for practice facility use…Individual workouts must also be scheduled, if allowed, at a host practice facility.” This would be a start contrast from the free-for-all nature of practice typically employed where dozens of teams could be on the mat at once in the two days before the event. It will put a logistical strain on the site and could be a reason for teams to locate alternate practice facilities.

How this might affect the warmup area is as of yet unclear. Wrestling has a greater mixture of athletes from different teams, especially in a tournament setting, than most sports. Athletes and coaches are expected to wear masks except when actually competing, practicing, or in their hotel rooms.

Travel and Meals
Travel presents its own challenges as teams converge on La Crosse, Wisconsin, in two months. Tier 1 & 2 individuals are supposed to maintain distancing as much as possible and refrain from using facilities like a pool or fitness center unless it is limited to the team and disinfected. Wrestlers would be advised to have their weight under control without relying on the hotel bikes and treadmills, since their availability is not guaranteed.

Regarding team meals, “[T]eams should either arrange for boxed meals and bottled beverages to be delivered to each individual’s room or arrange for dedicated meal location within the hotel that is set for team meals only…Meals at a restaurant should be avoided, and only outdoor seating should be utilized if unavoidable.” Outdoor seating in Wisconsin in March is unlikely, so there will likely be a lot of food delivered to hotel rooms.

One wrinkle the NCAA and teams will have to grapple with is the quarantine requirements. If a tested individual is positive for COVID-19, that individual will need to have a place away from the rest of the travel party to spend 14 days to avoid exposing others. The document allows for a contingency travel plan if quarantine is not possible. This seems to allow an infected individual to drive or be driven home in a private or college-owned vehicle.

There are guidelines for scenarios with no fans as well as full or partial fan capacities. If fans are allowed, there will be at least six feet between groups, everyone will be required to wear a mask at all times, and there will be a buffer zone of at least five rows or twenty feet between fans and the competition area. The elevated seating in the La Crosse Center would seem to solve this problem naturally.

Wrestling-specific Guidelines
Most of the document is not specific to any sport, but section E beginning on page 37 has some wrestling guidelines. Weigh-ins should be separated by weight class, as opposed to the typical procedure where all athletes are weighed in together. Also, scales should be disinfected after each use. If this is interpreted as in between each athlete, the weigh in procedure will take a little longer than usual.

The coaches corners are to be sanitized after each match, and coaches should wait to enter the corners until after the previous coaches have left and the sanitization is complete. Usually, the next wrestler is sent to the mat as the previous one approaches its conclusion. With these guidelines, wrestlers will likely be delayed until after the previous competitors and coaches have left the mat and the corners have been sanitized.

Mat Cleaning
“Mats should be regularly cleaned and disinfected in accordance with manufacturer’s best practices. Consideration should be made to utilize a rotation of mats used in competition at a given time to allow for mats to be disinfected between each match.” This is a little bit unclear. Should the mat be cleaned between each match or should manufacturers best practices be utilized? Typically, the mats are only cleaned between sessions. Cleaning each mat in between matches will significantly delay the competition, even with 45 fewer wrestlers in attendance. Regardless, the mats will be cleaned more frequently, and coming up with a strategy to clean and dry the mats quickly would be worthwhile.

The 2021 NCAA Division III Wrestling Championships, if the event is contested, will provide a unique challenge to athletes, coaches, athletic trainers, and event staff. The athletes and coaches will be in a sort of modified “bubble.” Interactions between wrestlers and fans will be eliminated, if fans are even permitted to attend. The logistical hurdles to be cleared to have the tournament are challenging, but do not appear insurmountable. The two main questions that remain:
1. Will there be enough teams in the 2021 season for the NCAA to host a championship?
2. Is there a point at which the NCAA cancels the tournament for health, cost, or other reasons?

The daily increase in COVID-19 infections is a sobering reminder that the pandemic continues, even as plans move forward with college athletics. Vaccines will not be available in large enough numbers to affect the wrestling championships, so it will be up to each school and individual to do their part to keep infections low on their campuses and in their athletes. Surely, schools, conferences, and the NCAA will have to make compromises and be nimble in the face of change, but we can all hope to see wrestlers on the mat in La Crosse two months from now.