Mike Aresco

American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco responds to questions from members of the media at a press conference in Newport, Rhode Island for AAC’s media day on July 16, 2019.

The first steps toward sports returning to college campuses have been taken. On Friday, the NCAA’s Division I council approved a measure that allows student-athletes in all sports to participate in voluntary athletic activities on campus beginning June 1.

Schools, however, are still prohibited from “countable required athletics activities” through June 30, according to a release by the NCAA. Nevertheless, this step may help pave the way for fall sports, namely football, to begin on time.

With the announcement by the Division I Council, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) announced the formation of a Medical Advisory Group. Its task is to answer many questions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic that separated student-athletes from on-campus activities, according to Commissioner Mike Aresco.

“We decided now that we were getting closer to when we would need to promulgate various guidelines for the reopening of our campuses to athletes -- as you know that could begin in June -- we felt that it would be very important to develop our own protocols,” Aresco said.

The group consists of 12 members, one from each AAC member institution and chaired by Dr. Greg Stewart from Tulane University, and meets weekly. The docket, according to Aresco, revolves around everything from testing of student-athletes and support staff to travel protocols and who will be allowed in stadiums before and during games and workouts.

“We’re using the best information we can get, but yes we’re on a tight timeline,” Aresco said. “Starting June 1, some of our campuses will have student-athletes return for voluntary workouts. We’re going to want these protocols in place so that people know what they need to do.”

While other conferences have set a date for schools to allow student-athletes to return, Aresco said the AAC is taking a more liberal approach. It will allow members to open their campuses whenever they see fit within NCAA guidelines as long as certain protocols are in place.

Many of those protocols are ones that are already widely in affect, including social distancing, the number of people allowed to a confined space at one time and a slew of other things.

According to Aresco, schools in the AAC will police themselves when it comes to these practices, but that does not mean the conference will be totally hands off.

“I think every school will have a certain level of discretion, but there are going to be minimum standards that we’re going to insist on at the conference level,” Aresco said. “This group is developing those. There will be things that certain schools will probably do differently and if schools want to exceed the guidelines, they’re perfectly free to do that.”

In the United States, more than 13 million tests have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with a little more than 1.7 million coming back positive. For the AAC, Aresco said testing will be the biggest key in order for campuses to open back up.

“I think the biggest hurdle is testing,” Aresco said. “Health and safety are the primary considerations. You want to make sure you have the safest environment possible. Nothing is going to be 100%, nothing in life we do is 100%. We drive knowing that there could be an accident. We do all sorts of things that involve some risk, but we want to minimize it and eliminate it if we can.”

Testing comes with its own bundle of questions. Aresco said knowing when to test, how many times per week to test and what to do when or if someone tests positive are among the biggest questions the group is working toward figuring out.

Aresco said he believes the availability of testing will not be a factor for the conference and the advisory group is working with labs around the country to find the best testing available.

“They (the members of the group) comment on the latest trends that they have noticed in their worlds,” Aresco said. “We have access to great medical centers and labs, so we’re getting the latest information on testing and what the protocols are and what the most effective tests are and availability.”

East Carolina University is represented by Dr. Joseph Armen, the head team physician for the campus athletics program. He wrote in an email, “the protocols recommended will also take into consideration federal, state and local recommendations where appropriate.”

Under North Carolina’s Phase 2 reopening plan that went into effect on Friday at 5 p.m., restaurants and retail establishments are allowed to open at 50% capacity. Limits of 10 people on indoor gatherings and 25-person limits on outdoor gatherings are still in place, according to nc.gov.

At the time of publication, no announcement had been made about ECU’s plan to reopen campus to student-athletes. Under the NCAA’s guidelines on the matter, those living near their school’s campus would be the easiest to return to on-campus activities.

Aresco said there are many questions to be answered before activities can become mandatory and before fall sports can begin in earnest. He said the advisory group is circulating documents and protocols that are not quite ready to be rolled out yet and that things are still a work in progress.

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