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Michigan State grapples with 'heartbreaking' decision to postpone fall sports

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It was late Tuesday morning in East Lansing, and Michigan State’s football team was busy on the practice fields, preparing for the upcoming season.

The Spartans have been spread out more than usual through the first few days of preseason camp, using the usual practice fields outside the Duffy Daugherty building as well as across the street on the field typically utilized by the marching band. It’s all been part of a new world, one dominated by COVID-19 that required the team to social distance as best it could.

Michigan State's fall sports season, and the rest of the Big Ten's, was postponed on Tuesday.

But this day would turn out to be far different than simply spreading the team out and wearing masks.

Before practice ended, first-year coach Mel Tucker was forced to call the team together and deliver the news they had all been hoping to avoid — the Big Ten was canceling the fall season.

“The decision to postpone the fall season is heartbreaking,” Michigan State athletic director Bill Beekman said in a statement, soon after the Big Ten made its announcement. “Our student-athletes have put in tireless hours of hard work to earn their scholarships and their places on our teams. They are what inspire every one of us who work in intercollegiate athletics. We understand that today’s news will be devastating for many of them. As an athletic department our goal is to provide opportunities for student-athletes both academically, athletically and socially. Sadly, the time has come where we must postpone those athletic opportunities, at least for the fall.”

While the news meant no season for dozens of athletes in men’s and women’s cross country, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball, the biggest blow likely came to the football program.

In addition to the crippling financial hit losing a football season can create for an athletic department, the Spartans are attempting to begin a new era. Following the retirement of Mark Dantonio in early February, Tucker has been battling uphill.

The timing of his hire was far from ideal, and then spring practice was wiped out as the coronavirus pandemic started shutting down all of college sports. And just before the start of preseason camp last Friday, the Spartans were finishing a 14-day quarantine after two staffers had tested positive for COVID-19.

Still, Tucker remained upbeat.

“From the beginning of this public health crisis there have been many unknowns for college football, thus it was important for me to listen and follow our medical staff and medical experts’ protocols for our workouts, practices and playing,” Tucker said in a statement. “The uncertainties caused by COVID-19 have created enormous stress for our players and their families and I am proud of their resilience. Our coaches and staff will continue to support their drive, dreams and decisions.

“While the conclusion to postpone the season is not easy for anyone, based on the medical recommendations, I respect the decision of the Big Ten Conference. When the medical experts tell us that we can get back to business, we’ll be ready. Until then, stay safe and Go Green.”

Players and other members of Michigan State’s program took to Twitter on Tuesday afternoon offering a positive outlook.

“Never know what’s up next … just gotta play it out,” sophomore wide receiver Tre Mosley tweeted.

Added former linebacker and current director of player engagement Darien Harris added, “Just watch what we do with a full offseason.”

Others jumped into the debate over whether any games should be played. Some coaches around the country, including Alabama’s Nick Saban, have suggested that players remaining on campus and with the team is safer than sending them home.

Sophomore linebacker Jeslord Boateng disagreed.

“I don’t know why college coaches are saying their players are safer on campus as if they didn’t come on campus and contract the virus,” he tweeted. “Make it make sense.”

Until the Spartans do get back on the field, the university is committed to supporting its student-athletes.

“I know how disappointed the whole Spartan community is over the cancellation of fall sports,” MSU president Samuel Stanley said. “ We have amazing student-athletes and fans at Michigan State University and this news is hard for many people. But safety remains our top priority, and we are still focused on creating a safe environment in which our university’s mission can continue. We are committed to ensuring our students have a successful academic year.

“We will continue to work with the Big Ten Conference as we look for opportunities for athletics to resume in the future. Collectively, we need to take the necessary precautions to protect ourselves and others and follow the guidance of our health and medical experts to protect the mental and physical health of our student-athletes.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau