Navy Sports Return to Play
POSTED ON: Friday, October 9, 2020 1:02 PM by MC2 Dana Legg
When the spread of COVID-19 finally began to slow, colleges around the country had to make decisions on how and if they would play competitive sports. At the five service academies, the decision was further complicated by the requirement of their students to complete the physical aspect of their mission.
Students at service academies are unique because they are in training to become future military officers, which requires them to maintain a level of physical fitness. The Naval Academy’s mission is to prepare midshipmen morally, mentally, and physically to become officers of the Navy and Marine Corps. To meet that physical mission, midshipmen are required to meet basic physical readiness standards which include core physical education classes during the school year, and participation in varsity, intramural or club sports throughout their four years at the academy. When COVID put a stop to collegiate sports across the country, midshipmen weren’t given the option to let their physical readiness decline, and like other athletes, were eager to get back into athletic competition as soon as possible.
“We knew that it wouldn’t be long before we were going to have to answer questions about how to bring sports back to the yard come fall,” said Naval Academy Associate Athletic Director for Sports Medicine Jim Berry. “So we put together a task force and started working on the Resocialization of Sports plans.”
Navy sports medicine physicians and athletic trainers comprise the task force, which worked with Navy and Marine Corps Public Health and Naval Health Clinic Annapolis to create the resocialization of sports plan for USNA, while incorporating American Athletic Conference and NCAA guidelines. The plan is divided into three phases and includes guidelines explaining when it is safe to phase up to looser restrictions, and what it means to phase down to tighter restrictions when an outbreak of COVID-19 occurs within a team.
In order to save the integrity of the sport, and to limit the spread of COVID through the team, pods, or ‘bubbles,’ were required by the NCAA and per guidance of participating leagues. According to NCAA, athletes must practice physical distancing, universal masking when distancing isn’t possible, hand hygiene, refraining from touching their face, disinfecting frequently used items, and staying home if they feel sick. Institutions may build on these rules by holding safe and efficient screenings, contact tracing after an outbreak occurs, and quarantine for new infections.
“It’s like compartments on a ship, where you can close a hatch and contain flooding or a fire just in one room; the pods are intended to work like that. When a player tests positive, he or she and their pod will be restricted from playing on the team,” said Berry.
Phase one restrictions divide teams into pods that are 20% of the size of the full team roster. Phase two divides team rosters in half, and phase three fully incorporates teams with no pod restrictions.
Naval Academy Head Team Physician Cmdr. Lance LeClere suggested that phasing up to less restrictive protocols may be easier for sports like baseball, where a mask can be worn with the helmet at all times, and slower for football, where players mask-up on the sidelines after removing their helmets.
“We have to take the time to evaluate each sport to make sure that each team is meeting requirements to get players back on the field,” said LeClere. “There are so many variables to consider, again depending on the sport, so in creating the plan for resocializing, we had to think about how teams interact with each other during practice and even in the locker room after.”
At practices, masks may be relaxed on the field for athletes playing sports that require a high amount of aerobic activity. Coaches, staff, and other team members must wear a mask while on the sidelines. Players receive daily temperature checks and answer questionnaires about symptoms and possible exposure. COVID-19 testing is currently being conducted three times each week for players and coaches at USNA.
“It's definitely different, but at this point it’s become routine; the new normal,” said Midshipman 1st Class Cameron Kinley, a football team captain and Class of 2021 class president. “Early-on it was frustrating getting tested all the time and doing the temperature checks, but now we’re used to it all. I would say it’s a positive thing for the team, to know that we’re following the protocols and keeping each other safe.”
According to LeClere, Navy sports physicians meet weekly with league physicians, Naval Health Clinic Annapolis, Navy Public Health, and NCAA to ensure Navy athletics COVID-19 policies are in line with all entities.
“We’re doing our best to keep the athletes safe with the most up to date information,” said LeClere.
Midshipmen are taking care to slow the spread off the field as well. Temperature checks, face coverings, and social distancing, when possible, are being strictly enforced across the yard and in Bancroft Hall. Midshipmen are also following strict dining procedures, like collecting pre-packaged meals during specific time slots, instead of sitting and eating all together inside Bancroft Hall at tables.
Additionally, the physical education department at the academy has shifted it’s classes to allow for proper social distancing. Usually, first year midshipmen, or plebes, take boxing and wrestling in their first semester, but those classes were moved to second semester because of the close-contact they require.
“The mental health aspect of keeping up training during this time is critical to keeping some sanity,” said Senior Associate Athletic Director Jay Antonelli. “Exercise helps relieve stress and we are in some stressful times. Staying fit and getting outside is critical for the Brigade right now.”
Even the twice-yearly physical readiness test was modified for midshipmen safety. Midshipmen conducted the first half of the test, which includes a plank and push-ups, in the traditional manner with a partner. Usually, the mile-and-a-half is run by two companies at a time, which is approximately 300 midshipmen total. This cycle, midshipmen were given a disposable radio-frequency identification chip, like those used in an organized road race, which triggered a reader at the beginning and end of their run around Farragut field, allowing the midshipmen to complete the run more physically distant from other runners.
“What I want the midshipmen to know is even with COVID, there are ways to safely exercise and maintain both physical and mental health, as long as one adheres to established protocols," said Antonelli.
Currently, operation for gyms on the yard is limited, with only a few weight rooms open to sports teams at specific times. This makes sports practices and games even more important so that midshipmen can maintain their physical health.
Football is the only fall varsity sport practicing and competing regularly. All other fall sports have been moved to the spring, or are practicing and competing sparingly. All direct contact intramural sports were cancelled for the fall, so midshipmen are playing kickball, outdoor dodgeball, softball, four-on-four volleyball, tennis, cross country, and limited capacity swim.
As the undergraduate college of our country’s naval service, the Naval Academy prepares young men and women to become professional officers of competence, character, and compassion in the US. Navy and Marine Corps.