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Towson football becomes first Colonial Athletic Association program to opt out of spring 2021 season

When — or if — the Colonial Athletic Association kicks off the spring 2021 football season, it will proceed without Towson.

The university announced Monday that it would sit out the six-game campaign, marking the first time in history that the program will not play football. The school, which has participated in football every year since 1969, listed the risk of long-term injuries as a reason for opting out.

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In a 106-second video the school attached to its release and later posted on YouTube, football coach Rob Ambrose said the coaches sought the opinions of those who would play a pivotal role in whether the Tigers would embark on a spring season after the fall campaign was suspended by the coronavirus pandemic – the players.

“The first thing we did was, we took a step back once we knew there was going to be a plan for this and instead of evaluating the plan – because we’re not the ones that play – we asked the kids,” he said. “We listened, and it was amazing how aware, how broad-minded, how forward-thinking, and how intelligent our kids really, really are. We surveyed the guys, and way more than half of the team – almost 75% of the team – did not want to trade a full season next year for a six-game, who-knows season this spring.”

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Ambrose said the players reminded him and the coaching staff of a spate of season-ending injuries that took a toll on last year’s team that went 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the CAA, missing out on a chance to compete in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs.

“They said, ‘Coach, do you realize that we lost six knees last fall in the first three games?’ Six guys that were starters, heavy contributors,” he said. “I still give the players and staff a lot credit for being able to rally and cover up those guys up and find a way to win. But now, if that happens in the spring — let’s put it this way, all those guys that got hurt, they could have been ready to play this fall — if that were to happen in the spring, those guys would lose that year and they’ll never get it back, and nobody wants to take a chance — at least nobody with experience — on giving up a full season of opportunity for something that one of the kids said, ‘Coach, the year doesn’t count against our eligibility anyway. Why are we trying to make it count?’ After listening to the kids, I couldn’t come up with a good reason why we should do this.”

The NCAA Division I board of directors has voted to grant an extra year of eligibility for student-athletes in fall, spring and winter sports seasons because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Another unspoken factor is that the NFL draft usually takes place in April. A spring football season would conflict with that development and force players to make decisions about their academic and professional careers.

CAA commissioner Joe D’Antonio said the league “is 100% supportive” of Towson’s decision.

“We have the utmost respect for the fact that the decision was made with the best interests of the university, athletic department and football student-athletes in mind,” he said. “For the 2021 spring football season, we’re still planning to proceed as we had announced [Sept. 30], which was utilizing a two-division format with the teams in each division playing six conference games. And as we said in that release, the teams that will comprise each division will be announced at the time the schedule is released, which we anticipate to hopefully happen late October or early November.”

Towson is the first university to skip the CAA season, but it is not the first FCS school to opt out. Abilene Christian, Campbell, Central Arkansas, Eastern Kentucky, Houston Baptist, Old Dominion, Sacramento State and Stephen F. Austin have said they will sit out potential spring football seasons in 2021.

The move represents another potential economic hit to the athletic department after Towson lost the $325,000 that Maryland had agreed to pay to play a football game in College Park this season when the Big Ten postponed its fall sports season and returned with a conference-only schedule. In June, the Tigers athletic department asked every sport and every unit within the department to slice 25% from their operating budgets.

Asked if any other members have definitively informed the conference of their participation status, D’Antonio replied, “At the present time, we’re not anticipating that any other institutions are going to opt out of the 2021 spring football season. However, just like everything else in this COVID-19 era, playing football in the spring remains a very fluid situation. So it’s difficult to answer that question in absolutes, but at the present time, we’re not anticipating anyone else opting out. We will continue to monitor and watch the situation with all of our institutions.”

In its written statement, the Tigers said the football program is scheduled to participate its traditional spring practices to prepare for the fall 2021 season. The university said all players, coaches and staff members will take appropriate measure to limit exposure to COVID-19, including screening.

The school said all football players will retain their year of eligibility.

“With football being a high-contact sport, the student-athletes and coaches agree that potentially sacrificing a normal fall season for a shortened spring year is not the safest course of action,” Towson athletic director Tim Leonard said in the release. “We support our student-athletes and coaches in this decision, and we look forward to a return to the field for the 2021 season.”

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The university’s men’s and women’s basketball teams are preparing to play a regular season in November. But D’Antonio, the CAA commissioner, said the Tigers' absence in football would be felt.

“We value every one of our 12 members that are part of the football conference equally,” he said. “So whenever we have a member that is affected by a situation such as this and is not able to play, we’re always going to miss them. That would go for whether this was Towson or any other member. But it doesn’t mean that we’re not going to continue as a conference to play football.”

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