After a unique spring FCS season that brought both a sense of “pride and relief” for the Missouri Valley Football Conference, commissioner Patty Viverito said Tuesday during the league’s virtual media day that juggling schedules this fall to accommodate teams with COVID-19 outbreaks is a thing of the past.
“If we do lose games, it’s quite likely that those will result in forfeits,” Viverito said. “We’re not going to be in the business of rescheduling games. We don’t have space in the schedule to do that.”
The surge of the Delta variant across the country has the MVFC awaiting guidance from the NCAA while encouraging the league’s coaches and players to improve what Viverito called “lagging” league-wide vaccination rates.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID data tracker website, more than 83% of new cases nationally over the past three months have been linked to the highly transmissible Delta variant.
“Just a few short weeks ago, it seemed like we were on track to have a season with far fewer COVID-19 health risks and no need to repeat the very restrictive protocols and testing that we dealt with all last year,” she said. “Sadly, team vaccination rates are lagging, the Delta variant is raging, and we are far from out of the pandemic woods.”
Viverito said she expects NCAA guidance that states testing and contact tracing for asymptomatic individuals would not be necessary if 85% of a team’s Tier I personnel – defined by NCAA.org as athletes, coaches, athletic trainers, physical therapists, medical staff and equipment staff – are vaccinated.
Having MVFC programs reach the 85% vaccination level “would certainly make all of our lives a lot easier,” Viverito said. “Our teams need to step up and hit that 85% to ensure a successful season.”
Currently, the commissioner said none of the league’s 11 teams have reached the 85% mark. Viverito said she received encouraging news in a recent meeting with the league’s head coaches.
“When I met with the coaches in June, the rates were frightening, to be perfectly honest with you,” she said. “When we met a couple weeks ago, the numbers were vastly improved. I think it’s a reachable goal. We are urging our student-athletes to speak with their physicians, speak with their trainers, and do everything we can to get good information in their hands.”
At Southern Illinois, head coach Nick Hill said his program is “getting pretty close” to the 85% level, thanks to a vaccination rate that vastly improved over the past two weeks.
“We’re in the mid- to high-70s and we have a few more (Tier I personnel) who are on the way to get the vaccine, so I believe we will get to 85%,” Hill said.
SIU recently brought in a guest speaker to discuss the vaccine with players and answer questions, according to Hill.
In Macomb, Western Illinois head coach Jared Elliott said he was “pretty worried” about WIU’s vaccination rate in early summer but has since seen a rise in members of the program getting vaccinated.
“I feel very confident that we’re going to hit the 85%, I really do,” he said. “I think that could be sooner rather than later for us.”
Elliott said his program has had medical experts speak to players and coaches have discussed how COVID-19 could impact the fall season.
“Whether you like (the vaccine) or not, or you agree with it or don’t agree with it … we’re just presenting to our players what the season could look like if we don’t do our part and do what’s asked of us,” he said. “We are definitely trending in the right direction.”
Illinois State coach Brock Spack said his program is at “right about 70%, maybe a little over that. We’d like to think it will go up from there.”
While some FCS conferences, such as the Big Sky, said teams with outbreaks will definitely be forced to forfeit, the MVFC was not as definitive Tuesday. Viverito said the key for the Valley is forthcoming NCAA guidance.
Coaches such as Spack are expecting the MVFC to become more clear-cut soon on the subject of forfeits.
“I think they will,” he said. “You kind of have to do that. I don’t think there’s any question about it. Patty and her staff will make the right decision.”
Spack said forfeits make sense because of scheduling inflexibility this fall and that he would support the decision even if Illinois State was impacted by a forfeit.