SPOKANE, WASH. — Earlier at this week's Big Sky Conference Kickoff in Spokane, Washington, league commissioner Tom Wistrcill detailed some of the conference's plans regarding COVID-19, should the virus affect any football games, or more, in 2021.
During his state of the conference address on Monday, Wistrcill reminded those in attendance that the pandemic was "not over" and he encouraged all coaches and players to get vaccinated. The goal is to get each vaccination rate up to 80%-85% for each member school's football team, Wistrcill said.
He mentioned that one school was above 90% on their vaccination rate while the lowest rate was below 30%. He estimated that the average rate for the entire league was just below 50% among the 13 football programs.
"What do we need to do from an education standpoint to our student-athletes to kind of dispel some of the myths that are out there, because there's a lot of myths out there that's just not sound medical advice," Wistrcill told assembled media. "So we're trying to find ways to communicate with all of our student-athletes to try and improve the numbers."
The biggest point Wistrcill made during his opening state of the conference speech was that if a COVID-19 outbreak occurred within a program and that it couldn't field a team for a game, then it would be a forfeit as opposed to being a no contest like football games were in the spring. No makeup games will be held either, and that goes for all sports, not just football.
"What we have decided in discussion with some of our presidents was there’s just no room in our schedule to have makeup games," Wistrcill said. "The schedule is very compact, we’re playing a full schedule so that’s why it’ll be forfeits instead of no contests or makeup games so that decision comes pretty quickly just because there’s not a lot of options."
The conference is not mandating vaccines from the member schools. However, it did require referees to be vaccinated, resulting in some leaving according to Wistrcill. Wistrcill did note that their policies are still being formed regarding the 2021 season, and the conference has a few weeks of work left with its health and safety committee to outline more protocols that it will put in place.
Testing was a big part of that which includes how often they'll test unvaccinated student-athletes. Travel and how they'll handle potential breakouts on campuses are still "yet to be determined," according to the commissioner.
"Through the NCAA and talking to lots of medical experts, if you get that number up to that 80-85% you have a pretty good opportunity to have competition and that gives us enough players to play a game," Wistrcill said. "Even if you have a breakout on the team and you're missing 4-5 players you can still play a football game, no different if you had those guys injured in a game."
"There is still some work to be done by our health and safety committee and we'll rely on the doctors, trainers and local health authorities to help us with those," he continued.
The conference's plan is beginning to come into focus now because it, like the rest of the country, wanted to see how the pandemic would continue to play out over the summer, with Wistrcill specifically noting the Delta variant as another concern they're monitoring.
Ultimately, Wistrcill said the Kickoff made things feel normal after 2020 was anything but, and he said if players and coaches are all vaccinated, then that gives them the best chance to keep that normalcy going forward.
"Essentially, if I'm in the locker room, I want to play football, I'm going to encourage my teammates to get vaccinated so that we can play," Wistrcill said. "It's too late if we enter October and we're below that number and we have a breakout. 'Oh yeah we should've gotten vaccinated,' well now's the time where we need to address that as we enter August here so hopefully we can protect the season."