Neil Sullivan knows his answers will be unsatisfactory to many Dayton Flyers fans.
When will athletes be able to return to campus? What will happen to fall sports? What about basketball season? Will Dayton be able to pack 13,000 fans into UD Arena as it does every year?
No one knows at this point — not even the athletic director. The coronavirus pandemic has created uncertainty throughout the sports world.
“I’m only comfortable giving two answers,” Sullivan said Wednesday. “The first one is: I don’t know. I take the uncertainty very seriously. But I also have no illusion that I have knowledge or forecasting ability that others don’t. The second thing I know is we’ll fiercely attack whatever eventuality comes our way. I know that leaves people void of answers.”
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The NCAA announced May 22 athletes in all sports could resume voluntary on-campus athletic activities starting June 1. That doesn’t mean athletes will flock back to campuses all at once.
Southeastern Conference athletes can return June 8. The Big 12 will allow football players to return to campus June 15. Ohio State athletes can return June 8. Every conference and every school faces its own decision.
Sullivan will know more about when and if Dayton athletes will be able to return to campus once the university announces its plans for the fall semester.
”Our student-athletes and coaches first and foremost are members of the greater University of Dayton community,” Sullivan said. “The university as a whole is focused on moving forward toward reopening campus in the fall. That’s a priority to see if and how that can happen. Once that’s been determined and the university has announced its plans to do that, then I think we can begin to execute the plans for the reintegration of athletics. But first and foremost, we’re citizens of the campus community and the greater Dayton community. That has to come first. Once those decisions are outlined and developed, we’ll be able to fall in line behind that.”
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Of course, Sullivan knows fans have questions that go beyond the coming weeks. As the professional leagues prepare to return to play at various points this summer without fans in the stands, college sports face the same questions.
Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith has talked about the idea of the Buckeyes playing in front of reduced crowds at Ohio Stadium in the fall. There could be more challenges with indoor sports. Again, it’s a question Sullivan can’t answer at this point.
Dayton sold out 14 of 17 men's basketball games last season, setting a UD Arena attendance record by averaging 13,364 fans. Dayton is operating as normal with ticket sales right now, but Sullivan said it will adjust and adapt if needed.
“We try not to deal with too many hypotheticals,” he said. “We remain hopeful. We’re scheduling and planning for a basketball season. We’ll have some time to watch how the NFL and college football do things. I tell our staff we’ll learn vicariously through them and adapt as more information and guidance unfolds. We’re taking it one day at a time. I stop short of predictions.”
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There’s another area of uncertainty for Dayton and the rest of college sports in regard to the name, image, likeness issue. The NCAA announced in April it will allow athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness starting in 2021. There are still questions about how it all will work.
Sullivan said UD supports the direction the NCAA is headed on the topic, but he’ll reserve judgment until he sees the details.
“What’s been approved so far have been concepts,” Sullivan said. “I think through the history of college sports and society in general, there have been no shortage of wonderful ideas that break down on execution or have unintended consequences. As some say, a good idea with poor execution really just ends up being a bad idea. We’ll see how it plays out. The legal and regulatory environment is really complex: different states, different philosophies, different approaches. But no matter how it shakes out, Dayton student-athletes are well positioned to develop their brands and find new opportunities that match their interests and abilities. We have a big-time stage locally and nationally as we saw this year.
"We have relationships with our fan base and the local community that, I think, are unmatched. The business community invests heavily in UD athletics. I think we've demonstrated we can deliver elite players on and off the court, whether that's an Obi Toppin, an Adam Trautman or Ally Malott, from a few years ago. Whatever the rules and guidelines end up, Dayton will be ready to attack. Our brand is a great foundation for our student-athletes to develop their own opportunities within whatever parameters are established."