How COVID-19 has altered athletics training and games

Morgan Foster
5 min readApr 29, 2021

By Morgan Foster and Lauren Wulf

COVID-19 has changed the way in which people carry out Day-to-day activities like grocery shopping or simply withdrawing money from an ATM. From social distancing to wearing masks, how people interact with one another has had to adjust in order to keep the number of cases down and to keep others safe.

Dr. Mark Hutchinson, the Director of Sports Medicine Services for all UIC athletics programs, explained that UIC had to be “flexible and safe” and had to “set priorities from the get-go for the athletes’ safety” in order to handle the pandemic correctly.

He devoted most of the success of this past year to the UI Health department. The UI Health department provided Saliva testing for all students, staff, and facilities.

“When Champaign and the veterinary school developed the saliva test, That expanded our potential,” Mark said.“We didn’t have to worry about paying for nasal pharyngeal tests two to three times a week for all of our athletes to continue to practice. It just became, hey, we got this Saliva test, and the athletics and housing were the first student groups that had access to routine testing. And then it just expanded from there as it became more available.” UIC had low numbers of COVID-19 cases due to the science developed by the UI Health department.

Athletes were being tested two to six times a week and most were staying on campus with other teammates.

“They created pods, which meant there was a group of four or five athletes who maybe were roommates. So that group stayed together when they practiced, they didn’t intermingle with the others,” Hutchinson said. “And what happened was, if one of those got sick, you could lose five members of a team but the rest of the team could still play.”

The idea of frequent testing and limiting players to pods allowed the reopening of athletics to move smoothly and remain open throughout the pandemic.

Liza Garrido Schwartz, who plays on the UIC volleyball team, talked about her experience over the last year. She stated that the volleyball team handled the pandemic “extremely well” and was able to play their season during a pandemic due to the strict mask-wearing guidance set in place and their frequent testing.

The NFL also frequently tested their players and other personnel. They had a 0.11% positive rate over the course of one week. Due to their frequent testing and containment of players, the NFL was able to maintain a low positive rate during the 2020 season.

Schwartz added that the volleyball team decided to keep masks on during practices, training, and matches. Along with testing every week, they only had to postpone one game.

She said only one game was canceled all season — against Northern Kentucky University.

“I don’t know if one of the girls in the volleyball team got COVID, but one of the staff people got COVID, so yeah that was the only game we got canceled.”

During the 2020 and 2021 seasons for the NCAA, NBA, and NFL they had to adjust extremely to new guidelines in order to stay safe from the pandemic. During the first outbreak of the coronavirus, the NCAA was gearing up for its annual March Madness tournament. They had to cancel the entire season due to the rapidly growing numbers of COVID-19 cases. It wasn’t until the next season, 2020–2021, that they were able to play.

Even with the seasons opened up for the NCAA, NBA, and NFL they still had to cancel and postpone many games due to players or staff testing positive for the COVID-19 virus. The NBA had high numbers of postponed games partly due to the timing of their season.

The NBA season starts at the end of November and goes until June, during which the case numbers went up due to the harsh winter weather and many family holidays. As a result, COVID-19 cases increased. Relatively, the number of games postponed was lower than most had expected.

The NFL has also reduced their number of games in a season in response to positive cases across teams. While basketball is classified as a contact sport, it is to a lesser degree than football seeing as substantial contact between players is discouraged and penalized.

This may also explain the significantly less number of games played in the NFL compared to the NBA. The graphic above shows this through the gaming schedules of the Chicago Bears and the Chicago Bulls.

The graphic above shows a side-by-side comparison of new COVID-19 protocols for the NBA and the NFL. The NFL implemented their intensive program in October 2020 for teams testing positive or for those who were exposed to other teams that had positive cases. The following month it was sanctioned for all sports teams under the league to abide by these restrictions after its effectiveness was recognized.

The NBA implemented its restrictions towards the end of 2020 in December. Not only did they outline intensive conditions for the players, staff, and family but also repercussions for those who choose not to follow the new protocols or choose not to report violations they encounter. These repercussions include a pay reduction proportionate to the amount of leave for quarantine (or other delays), fines, suspensions, or educational sessions.

Similar to the professional leagues, the NCAA also held their players to a standard with COVID safety. Many teams have instilled precautionary measures that players must follow, varying by the venue as they still participate in away games.

Dan Wallace, Director of Athletic Communications at UIC, talked about how UIC athletics handled close-contact during practices.

“All of our programs practice with masks on[…] most of these programs do a good job of creating their bubble, in terms of you just interacting with your coaches, your teammates, and you try to keep it all in-house as possible,” he said.

Wallace went on to explain how teams conducted their practices when the pandemic first emerged. He highlighted that since every sport differs in the proximity players are from one another, policies and the way activities would be organized will also be varied.

In their practices earlier in the season, men’s and Women’s basketball teams would reduce the number of players they had on the court and played in smaller groups of four at a time. “…that meant fewer bodies on the court,” Wallace said. “more room to spread out, fewer chances of staying in that close contact for extended periods of time.”

The diligence of both the players and staff allowed for teams to return to a semi-normal life. When COVID-19 restrictions eased in response to CDC updates and vaccinations were administered, those small groups expanded and more players and staff were allowed onto the court. Masks and sanitizing were still mandatory.

“We were always really strict with ourselves,” Schwartz said. The strict guidelines allowed different teams all other the world to be able to do what they love — which is to compete. This last year has flipped everything upside down, but teams like the UIC Volleyball program, show that it is possible to play safely during a worldwide pandemic.

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Morgan Foster
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Undergraduate student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Psychology major with a minor in Communications.