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MAC reverses course, decides to play football in the fall

In August, the Mid-American Conference was the first Football Bowl Subdivision league to announce it would not play in the fall.

On Friday, it became the last one to say it would.

In the six weeks in between, Northern Illinois University athletic director Sean Frazier said there were multiple factors. Most notably, however, was the availability of rapid testing to more quickly determine whether someone has contracted COVID-19.

"I think the rapid testing is the biggest thing," Frazier said. "The ability to have answers, a quick response and [the ability to get] back to us immediately – we didn't have that.

"The other part of it is we had an advantage, the way I look at it. Look at what the other leagues are doing. What was stopping them? What was starting them? We have some benefits to that, and I think that went into the decision-making."

The conference announced a six-game season to begin Nov. 4, with a MAC title game to be played Dec. 18 or 19. Preseason practices can begin Oct. 5.

Frazier didn't say how much testing would cost, although he did say it would be significant for a protocol he called robust. League protocols call for antigen testing four times a week through a nasal swab, with an additional confirmation test for anyone testing positive. Any athlete with a positive test will enter a cardiac screening protocol.

Fans will not be allowed at games. Frazier said any change in that policy would have to come with consultation with local health officials.

Coach Thomas Hammock said players and coaches already have been working on ways to bring the energy themselves.

"We've done a lot of research with the games that are being played at the NFL level and the college level," Hammock said. "We've created a juice committee. It has some coaches, it has some players, different things we can do to bring our own energy, create an atmosphere that is going to be conducive to us playing the type of football we want to play."

Practices start only three days after the football team is scheduled to exit quarantine. NIU announced 18 new positive COVID-19 cases among students Sept. 18. Subsequently, the football, men's basketball and men's golf teams were put under quarantine.

Frazier said there will be challenges – more than 20 college games already have been postponed or canceled this year – and the safety of the players comes first.

"Do I think we can sputter and shut down based on the robust protocol? Absolutely," Frazier said. "It might happen, but I feel much more comfortable in what we're doing to screen, mitigate and protect than I did a month and a half ago. COVID-19 is here. We're going to have to adjust to it; we're going to have to deal with it. There are no guarantees for now or the spring."

Football is the only sport being resumed with all others tentatively scheduled to return during the spring season when their respective NCAA championships will occur.

NIU President Lisa Freeman said in order for the MAC to move forward with a fall football season, university presidents again relied on the medical professionals.

“This was a difficult decision, just as it was to postpone the season back in August,” Freeman said in a statement. “In the end, we had to have assurances from the members of the MAC Medical Advisory Board, including representatives from our partners here at NIU from Northwestern Medicine, that the testing regimens and safety protocols could be implemented. We know that managing this virus is a day-to-day and week-to-week situation. Our priority remains the health and safety of our entire campus and community, including student-athletes.”   

Hammock said there is a buzz not only among the players but the coaching staff, as well.

"Our kids have stayed locked in all summer doing the things we ask," Hammock said. "A lot of young men texting me, saying, 'Is this going to happen?'

"There was a buzz with the coaching staff. I think that's one thing that gets missed. The players talk about how they want to play, but coaches want to coach. We want to have an opportunity to go out there and compete in a sport we love."

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