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UCI Athletics Begins Their Steady Return To Competition

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UCI Athletics began its tentative, phased-in approach for a safe return to collegiate sports after the Big West Conference announced that winter sports were expected to begin Nov. 25.

The abrupt pause on sports — and seemingly the whole world — back in mid-March has since become a distant memory as various sports leagues have already undergone their return to play. With UCI Athletics, however, the process is still developing in terms of what the seasons will look like for their respective departments.

The Big West Conference announced on July 29 that fall sports would be postponed through the end of the calendar year and that winter sports were expected to begin Nov. 25. Since then, there has been a recent update that fall sports will tentatively resume in spring 2021. However, for winter sport student-athletes, this begs the question: are we still expected to play during this COVID-19 pandemic?

“The NCAA Board of Directors issued an announcement that student athletes would have the opportunity to opt-out from sports this fall if they had any issues or concerns, and obviously we support that 100% and have communicated that broadly to our student athletes,” UCI Intercollegiate Athletics Director Paula Smith said.

Smith has been in close contact with her staff throughout the seven month lull of UCI sports. They have held ongoing discussions with players and staff across all departments about how they have been able to cope with the swift, unprecedented changes that were inflicted by the pandemic. 

Before the various collegiate institutions were able to demonstrate their plans for a safe return to sports, the nation was able to witness different approaches on transitioning back. The WNBA, NBA, NFL and MLB each resumed their seasons and the containment of the virus varied. The MLB and NFL haven’t been able to prevent positive cases but have kept the numbers relatively low. Others experienced resounding success, as the WNBA and NBA bubbles reported zero positive COVID-19 cases.

“Most collegiate sports programs, I don’t believe, will ever be in a position where they are doing the same sort of bubble as the NBA. At Irvine, I will say that we have our phased-in approach,” Smith said.

This phased-in approach has three parts: campus return (1), team training (2) and competition (3).

Phase 1A requires that student-athletes who intend to return to campus must initially self-quarantine for a minimum of 14 days prior to their arrival. Once back on campus, the athletes are tested twice a week and must remain isolated; they are provided with personal equipment required to be used outdoors while maintaining social distancing. This is then followed by the student-athletes having to update daily activity trackers and fill out daily symptom checks. Phase 1B increases team integration, allowing residence pods of 10 players or less, but still requires them to do individualized skill-based training and workouts.

Team training is allowed to begin in Phase 2. For this phase, the departments have designated liaisons whose responsibilities are to conduct contact tracing protocols. Phase 3, which focuses on competition, is still undergoing planning and preparation.

A majority of the UCI Athletic Departments’ staff — with the exception of sports medicine, strength & conditioning and coaching staff — are still working remotely. This is done in part to remain in compliance with a long list of governing bodies’ policies and because every division at UCI has to submit plans to the Campus Recovery and Education & Employment Team before allowing staff to return to work.

“It’s important for us to go slow; it’s important for us to be methodical about our approach to return, because the idea is that we’re taking on the health and welfare of our student athletes, coaches and our staff,” Smith said.

Although the date is subject to change in the event that a health concern arises, UCI students, staff and faculty can expect a resurgence of their beloved sports on Nov. 25, when both Women’s and Men’s Basketball will have Anteaters back on the court.

Stefan C. Jones is a Staff Writer. He can be reached at