Shane Lyons admits his optimism concerning college football season has dwindled over the last few weeks, but said WVU Athletics is continuing to “work through” the new challenges it faces.
The most pressing of those challenges: finding more than a million dollars to fund necessary COVID-19 testing for student-athletes this year.
In an interview Wednesday, WVU’s director of athletics told West Virginia Illustrated that he believes the athletic department is succeeding in that which it can control — ensuring a safe return to play for student-athletes and coaches in football and other fall sports. But many other things are out of the athletic director’s hands, namely the recent uptick in cases in Monongalia County and throughout West Virginia.
“Some of these things are out of our control,” Lyons said. “I was very optimistic that through our protocols we have set here at West Virginia — testing our athletes, going through that — that I thought we were safe to return to play. But then, the last couple of weeks, from a public health standpoint, it’s trending definitely in the wrong direction.”
With roughly seven weeks to go until West Virginia’s scheduled regular season opener, those negative trends will need to change quickly in order to guarantee an on-time start to college football season.
Lyons confirmed that the Big 12 will wait a few more weeks before making a decision on fall sports, saying that announcement will likely come in late July or early August.
At this point, though, the outlook is bleak.
“Right now, if it doesn’t trend back in the other direction, we’re looking at a further delay, or worst-case scenario, a postponement of football in the fall,” Lyons said.
On the gridiron, head coach Neal Brown’s squad will continue to prepare for an on-time start to the regular season. Many athletes have been back in Morgantown since mid-June participating in voluntary workouts. Under the new six-week return to play model adopted by the Division I Council, those activities will ramp up beginning July 23 for a two-week period of “enhanced training” before the official start of fall camp Aug. 7.
Throughout this process, though, WVU has already spent thousands of dollars to ensure athletes and coaches in all sports remain healthy.
Lyons said every student-athlete is tested for the virus that causes COVID-19 weekly, and the cost of each individual test is roughly $100. He now projects that a full academic year of athletics at WVU could result in more than $1.5 million in testing alone.
It’s a necessary cost to keep athletic programs operating, but Lyons said “it’s a cost we’ve never had before” — one that has caused WVU Athletics to reevaluate its budget again, even after projecting a $5 million shortfall in May.
“Even in a crisis that we’re dealing with, with budget issues, that’s part of what we have to do for the health and safety not only of our student-athletes, but our coaches,” Lyons said. “This is what we have to do on a weekly basis during this pandemic, and we’ll have to make some adjustments in our budget analysis to come up with that $1.5 million, hoping we do have a full year of sports.”
In order for games in any sport to take place this fall, athletic programs will need guarantees that they’ll receive COVID test results in a timely matter. That, Lyons said, isn’t happening right now for WVU, because the recent increase in testing in the state has led to delayed return of results.
If WVU is to play football games during the pandemic, all athletes would be tested 72 hours before kickoff, and they must have a negative test result in hand before the game in order to participate. But right now, Lyons said some recent tests have taken longer than 72 hours to process.
“When we started this in June, we were getting results back in 24 hours. We’re testing this week, it’s taking anywhere from three to five days in some cases. We can’t do that at the beginning of September and expect to be able to follow up our protocols and the safety and wellbeing of student-athletes and coaches and have those tests back,” Lyons said. “That’s what we have to work through. That’s what’s going to have to happen in order to play football in September.”
As of last week, WVU football had reported nine positive tests since voluntary workouts began last month.