The entire sports world came to a dramatic halt on the heels of the worldwide pandemic. MSU is not excluded from this, so it’s up to everyone involved with athletics to play the cards they have been dealt. On March 11, 2020, the historic Montana State women’s basketball team defeated Northern Arizona in the Big Sky tournament semi-final 76-71, which meant that they were just one win away from a guaranteed spot in the NCAA tournament. That same evening, the MSU men’s hoops team prepared for their first game of the tournament. After receiving a bye in the tournament, the Cats advanced to the quarterfinal round for the first time since 2005. In Bozeman, MSU prepared to host athletes from across the nation for the NCAA Skiing National Championships being held at Bridger Bowl and Crosscut Mountain Sports. Shockingly yet understandably, the following morning, the conference announced that it was cancelling the rest of its annual basketball tournament. The Cats’ ski team participated in an abbreviated day of events before the NCAA suspended all winter and spring sports that same evening. These cancellations were the right decision with regards to human health, but the impact it had on MSU was particularly heavy. The virus impacted normal life in such a drastic and sudden way that it would be ridiculous to try and predict how Bobcat athletics will look once things subside, but looking through our past may provide us with some ideas for the future.
Ending historic events and seasons, the coronavirus took an especially hard toll on the Bobcats. Currently, the athletic department is dealing with a situation that hasn’t happened since World War II. The spring sports golf, tennis and track and field were cancelled by the NCAA, along with on-campus spring training and academic programs such as spring football camp. Players, coaches, staff and even administration are at home social distancing, just like the rest of us who are preparing to return to campus at some point. In a video recorded from their homes last week, Director of Athletics Leon Costello and Associate AD Bethany Cordell described some of the changes they’re working through since the outbreak.
“This virtual world is different,” said Costello in regards to maintaining communication with the roughly 350 student-athletes at MSU. “I know they (student-athletes) are used to it more than someone like I am.”
Concerning the more nitty-gritty details of the COVID-19 pandemic, Costello admitted that the department's budget was somewhat unknown going forward. He said that the school’s generated revenue was expected to be drastically less than anticipated for the spring due to unforeseen circumstances such as the NCAA tournament’s cancellation. Costello also was honest about the uncertainty surrounding fall sports by mentioning that outcomes could range from sports continuing as normal to an altered season to even no fall sports seasons at all.
Though a sports stoppage has never happened quite like this, in 1918 the Spanish Flu and the Great War also put a hold to sports on our campus. That fall, MSU didn’t field a football team as avoiding the danger of gathering in large groups along with the war in Europe were the main concerns for Bobcats. Spanish flu would still go on to kill roughly 5,000 Montanans, a huge toll to a low-population state and a huge lesson for Montanans in current times. Though we would love to pack 20,000 fans into Bobcat stadium for “Gold Rush”, that may not be the priority at the time, as the pandemic and related economic impact are surely much more important. For Costello and the university, protecting its student-athletes, staff and fans should obviously be their priority and if it takes something as drastic as cancelling the fall sports season, then we must support that decision understanding from the past that sports will once again return.
When sports eventually return, it will be uncertain how the health of MSU athletics will appear. Before the pandemic, the department seemed to be doing an excellent job expanding while still properly maintaining a healthy budget, a job that can be really difficult for a school of its size. Fan attendance was increasing for most sports and the Bobcat Athletic Complex was set to begin soon. Now, there are some obvious uncertainties, though Costello assured that the B.A.C. was sure to continue on schedule. At the University of Cincinnati, a much larger institution, pandemic-related budget changes have led to the decision to cut their men’s soccer program, leading to further doubts for other universities. For MSU, Costello reassured all that Bobcats will continue supporting Bobcats.
“We have great people on our staff, great people in our department and great people on campus that are supporting us every step of the way,” said Costello. “Obviously we have great fans supporting us as well. All together we can accomplish great things and we’re continuing to do that in tough times.”
While it’d be tough to face a fall without sports, it’s nothing compared to what we will face if we make irrational decisions. The health of fellow Bobcats and Montanans depends on how seriously we follow guidelines implemented by medical professionals. If that includes cancelling more MSU sports, then so be it. We’ve had to do it already, and the reward of waiting far outweighs the risk of ignoring. As looking to the past has taught us, sports can be brought back, people can not. The MSU athletic department should be supported in these tough times for ensuring that the wellbeing of the people they are surrounded by comes first. As always, Go Cats and stay at home.