Dean of Athletics Joe Sterrett speaks in front of a crowd in Baker Hall at Zoellner Arts Center. While fall sports at Lehigh remain uncertain, Sterrett said Lehigh's plan to return to campus is a positive step. (Courtesy of Lehigh Sports)

Fall athletics remain uncertain, but plan to return to campus a ‘positive step’

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Lehigh Dean of Athletics Joe Sterrett said, while an official decision on fall sports at Lehigh is at least two weeks away, the school’s plan to bring students back on campus for the fall semester is a positive step for its possibility.

Knowing whether athletics will take place this fall is still premature, however, and Sterrett said a plan will have to go through a series of approvals on campus, locally, with the Patriot League and then with other leagues. 

Sterrett said there were two gateway decisions that needed to be made before he and his team could realistically plan for a return of sports at Lehigh — the reopening of the state of Pennsylvania and Lehigh’s decision to return to campus.

Sterrett said as Pennsylvania counties move to the green phase of reopening within the next several weeks, it is likely that athletic activities will be able to occur under state law. Gov. Tom Wolf just announced new guidelines for the return of high school sports. 

If Lehigh had decided to close campus this fall or conduct the semester remotely, Sterrett said it was a foregone conclusion that fall sports would not occur. Now that students will be able to return to campus, Lehigh can begin putting together a plan for the return of athletics in “very specific ways.”

“We are optimistic that we can put together a plan that will put public health first and foremost and yet still give the opportunity for people to compete,” Sterrett said.

Any plan that is put forward will be centered around public health first, Sterrett said, and there will need to be confidence that a plan can execute on those ideals.

While the NCAA said voluntary pre-practice training could begin on June 1, Sterrett said he knew Lehigh wouldn’t follow that decision based onNorthampton County’s restrictions — with the county having moved from the red phase of reopening to the yellow phase on June 5 — and Lehigh not yet having made a decision on reopening at the time.

Sterrett said similar to how Lehigh’s in-person semester will take precautions to ensure the health of students and faculty, Lehigh athletics will have to do the same. 

Whether it be aspects of social distancing, personal protection or the way activities are conducted, Sterrett said there will undoubtedly be deviations from normalcy if athletics occur in the fall.

He said the athletes themselves will also need to be comfortable with returning to play and that they will not be forced into competition.

While there has been some guidance for the resumption of sports by the NCAA and Pennsylvania, Sterrett said there is still much to come that will help guide decisions and the planning process.

Sterrett said sport-specific guidance, especially with a sport like football, will be necessary to ensure that it can take place safely. 

It is conceivable that some sports may be able to take place while others may not, but he said the current goal is to plan for a potential return of all fall sports, with nothing having been ruled out.

“(A return) will be easier to execute in a sport like golf, but our aspirations are to provide the college sports experience to everybody respective of (their) sport,” Sterrett said. “It just may mean that the process is more complicated and less traditional relative to what the participants, the students and their coaching staffs are used to.”

Sterrett said, like intercollegiate sports, intramural and club sports will need to operate a bit differently and take precautionary measures if they are to occur. 

Whether those will take place are as much up in the air as Division I sports, he said.

“With our intercollegiate (Division I) program, we have a more extensive and trained and professional coaching staff to supervise certain dimensions of activities that go on,” Sterrett said. “Most intramural sports are students playing against other students and, if there were certain expectations for behavioral modifications, who is going to oversee and supervise that? You need to have confidence that it’ll be conducted in the right way before we make some decisions about those activities.”

While the return of sports remains murky even in the wake of Lehigh’s decision to return to campus, Sterrett said there is more clarity now than a few weeks ago.

“I’m more hopeful, that’s probably the best way to describe it,” Sterrett said. “There’s a little bit more information that’s available, there’s a little bit more confidence in the information that we have, and we’re deeply and regularly engaged with health experts and officials about all of this.”

 

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