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Towson University planning to welcome back football players July 6, hoping for full sports calendar

Towson University is planning to welcome back student-athletes from its fall sports later this summer, beginning with football players on July 6.

Athletic director Tim Leonard made the announcement Thursday afternoon during an hour-long online briefing on the state of the university’s athletics landscape in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

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“This has been such a bizarre time, almost surreal,” he said as more than 200 student-athletes, parents and media members attended the online briefing and Q&A. “It’s getting to the point now where it’s almost normal, and I hate to say that because I don’t want it to be normal. I want to get back to that point and I’m anxious to get back to that point where we’re back on campus, we have the buzz and all of the energy of our students on this campus and getting ready to compete and win some ball games.”

Joined by women’s basketball coach Diane Richardson, director of sports medicine Nathan Wilder and associate athletic director for compliance Terry Porter, Leonard outlined some parts of the school’s “Return to play” plan.

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Leonard said the university does not anticipate any layoffs or furloughs. He also said that all 19 sports and every scholarship will remain intact.

But the trade-off, he said, is that every sport and every unit within the athletic department will be asked to trim 25% from its operating budget.

One result of that budget cut is that each sport will be allowed to schedule the minimum number of games or matches to meet the NCAA requirement for postseason eligibility and can only add more games or matches if the budget will allow it.

Leonard said that the Colonial Athletic Association – of which the school is a member – will permit teams to schedule nonconference opponents during what would usually be their conference schedules and will allow every member to participate in the league tournaments. Leonard said some teams could face the same opponent four or five times in a season to reduce travel costs and expenses.

“The travel won’t be as significant as it’s been in the past,” he said. “But the one thing we’ve told our coaches is, ‘This year what we really want you to focus on is trying to ensure that our student-athletes have a great experience, that they feel like they’ve been pushed to become better at their sport, and to compete hard no matter who we’re playing because we still want to get to that postseason and win some championships.’ … We’ve got to stay within budget. Going over budget is not an option.”

Leonard said that the school is preparing as if attendance at football games will not be affected, but emphasized that depends on what Gov. Larry Hogan rules regarding large gatherings.

Several questions during the briefing were posed to Wilder, who said the university will implement a two-week phase for every incoming student-athlete that will include one week of screening and testing for COVID-19 and then another week of a measured transition to training, practices and then games.

When asked why every student-athlete must be tested even if they show no symptoms, Wilder replied: “If we don’t test those student-athletes and we bring someone into our community that is positive and we don’t know about that, there is a large chance that we could spread that virus very quickly and to other people. So that is a strategy for health and safety to ensure that we are doing right by all people involved in the process.”

Wilder did not go as far as to say that student-athletes who have been cleared will be prevented from leaving campus. Instead, he said that trainers, coaches and officials will stress the importance of reducing potential infection and spread.

“We all know we’re dealing with 18- to 22-year-old individuals, and they might feel invincible,” he said. “But this is a time where we need to think about the team first, and we need to think about how we stay close to each other in the sense of the cohort of our team and not bringing people in from the outside to where we’re going to put others at risk.”

No one on the panel addressed the current movement among professional athletes seeking the right to kneel during the national anthem to protest racial inequality in the country. But Leonard said university officials have engaged in a number of conversations to raise awareness.

“Now we’re dealing with some really serious issues outside of the classroom, outside of competing that have to deal with racial injustice in our country,” he said. “So while we’re trying to prepare to come back and focus on this, we’ve also tried to pause and take some time to have, for some, very difficult discussions to talk about what is going on, talk about racism in this country, and wanting to make sure that our black staff members, black student-athletes and black communities know that we support them and want to do everything that we can to eliminate and end racial injustice.”

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Richardson wrapped up the briefing by imploring the observers to band together in support of the school and its teams.

“We’ve all been through a lot this year, but please stick with us,” she said. “Stick with us, stay with us, and we’ll stay with you. Now in this time, we need you more than ever.”

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