Uncertainty grips Sul Ross State’s football program weeks before reporting

ALPINE — “Ever since I was a kid, it’s been my escape, and I’m just looking forward to getting back out there,” Cory McMahan, junior cornerback for the Sul Ross State University football team, said when asked if he would be willing to play during the 2020 football season. However, with the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the state now finding their way into Alpine, the prospect of having a season this fall has only become more uncertain.

The Sul Ross football team is set to return to campus on August 9 for the start of preseason practices as the NCAA-approved Division III schools start practice on August 10. At the time of writing, no SRSU official could confirm any kind of return plan for the team beyond team distancing practices that would progressively get more lenient as the team spent more time on campus.

These distancing guidelines would start with the team — consisting of 120 players — only being able to meet in groups of 10 for at least two weeks. After that two week period, the team would continue with practice in groups of 50.

John Pearce, head football coach at SRSU, has said that much of the return plan and the fate of the 2020 season is out of his hands, saying that the decision will inevitably come down to university officials, the American Southwest Conference and the NCAA.

“The safety and health of the team is the top priority,” said Pearce when speaking about his outlook on the 2020 season. Pearce expressed a worry for his team once the campus is flooded with students once again in mid-August, saying that he can make sure his team distances properly, but once they leave practice and file into classrooms, the situation is taken out of his control. Even beyond their trips to the classroom, one must consider games facing off against various teams with hundreds of other players from across the southwest region.

This statement was echoed by McMahan, who said he feels that the move-in dates for athletes (August 9) and students (August 22) being so close worries him, as “that is a lot of people coming in all at once from a lot of different places.” Pearce also expressed that he was worried about possibly getting COVID-19, stating, “I got more to lose if I get sick,” alluding to the increased severity in older adults than young ones.

Players getting sick as university football programs return to campus has already been a problem in Texas and across the country as the football teams at the University of Texas, Clemson University, Louisiana State University, Kansas State University and Houston University — among other universities — all have double-digit COVID-19 cases since starting practices.

A notable difference between these schools and SRSU, however, is that most of them not only had comprehensive return plans that included testing, but they all also have athletics budgets well into the tens of millions and, in some cases, hundreds of millions. This is not a luxury that SRSU has: when all of the budgets for each of the sports teams are added up on SRSU’s 2020 budget, it totals to an auxiliary unpleaded amount of $3,674,793.

The 2020 budget also does not include any line items for COVID-19 testing or precautions for any of its sports at this time. The SRSU University football team also contributes a lower percentage of revenue to the university than all of the previously mentioned schools, but the lack of ticket sales and stadium revenue would be felt by the university.

A decision about whether or not fans would be allowed to attend games has not been made by the university, but Texas Governor Greg Abbott has announced previously that college and professional stadiums would be allowed to operate at 50% capacity once sports do return.

McMahan, who has recovered from COVID-19 once already, said he is not worried about getting sick and just wants to get back on the field, stating that he would be “crushed” if a 2020 season were not allowed to happen. The outlook from Coach Pearce on the upcoming season only emphasizes the uncertainty of the situation, calling it a “50/50” chance that the season gets cancelled.