Skip to content

The Case for Athletics and Recreation on Campuses during COVID-19

As colleges and universities consider a return to campus, administrators are thinking through the way that class schedules, dorm living, and dining will need to change to keep students safe during the COVID-19 outbreak. With so much uncertainty about how to manage the fundamentals of campus living, priorities around continued student and campus involvement in athletics and recreation are not seen by many institutions as mission critical. However, we believe that administrations should be putting similar efforts into assuring some level of continuity for recreation and athletics on campus. To make sure students experience a healthy, holistic return to campus, schools should consider how to make these programs safe for students to participate in during the pandemic.


Over the last decade campus recreation centers have become primary destinations for students and campus community members. Regardless of their identity or experience, recreation centers offer students, faculty, and staff a break from academic pressure and invite them to join a community focused on bettering their mental and physical wellness. Current trends in recreation center design reflect an interest in engaging students with activities that promote lifelong wellbeing, such as nutrition education and mindfulness practices. Many schools are expanding their recreation programming to cater to a variety of student interests, as well as incorporating space for activities that expand their reach (such as esports) into their facilities.

To keep students safe on campus during COVID-19, however, schools are forced to implement policies that keep students apart. When students are isolated with limited range of where they can go or with whom they can socialize, falling into unhealthy habits becomes almost inevitable. As the student population begins to return to a more isolated college experience, advocacy and support for maintaining healthy habits is essential. Even in a modified capacity, recreation centers can fill an important role on campus by allowing students the space to care for their physical and mental wellbeing and providing them of some sense of normalcy. Here are some measures we’re seeing schools taking to safely conduct recreation programming:


  • Provide signage at entrances that outline protocols for hygiene and distancing expectations
  • Develop protocols for locker room use and locker room cleaning
  • If allowing group exercise classes, limit numbers, mark out spaces on floor, create personal equipment so users don’t share, and introduce a regime of extreme cleaning before and after use
  • Limit top rope stations for climbing walls and initiate use of auto belays. Refer to Climbing Wall Association for cleaning procedures. Provide hand sanitizer at climbing area
  • Require staff to wear a mask at all times unless they are outside or are alone with spacing of 10 feet or greater – such as in laundry rooms, offices, or unoccupied spaces. Require staff to wear gloves.
  • Encourage members to wear masks
  • Stock all medic kits with face shields and gowns
  • Install plastic glass shields at all point of service desks
  • Initiate a new check-in process that does not require passing of ID cards
  • Equip facilities with soap, hand sanitizer, disinfectant spray bottles, single-use rags and disinfectant wipes
  • Direct custodial crew to adhere to new cleaning protocols that will be completed at least twice daily
  • Engage a third-party cleaning company periodically to do a deep clean of all equipment and spaces
  • Review HVAC systems for air flow and air change rates


  • Reduce facility hours
  • Control occupant counts by limiting users using a rule of thumb, e.g. 1 person per 100 SF
  • Consider staging occupants via online reservations. Some schools are allowing entrants in 70-minute blocks and then reserving 20 minutes to clean the facility before allowing the next wave of users in for the next 70-minute block.
  • Organize equipment to have a six-foot perimeter around each piece
  • In the free weight and functional training areas, mark six-foot boxes for members to use as guides
  • Limit staffing at main desks to one person at a time. Any additional staff for busier times will be assigned to roam and clean
  • Expand fitness equipment into gym spaces that will be offline for the near term

Programming and Engagement

  • Refer to state guidelines and confer with other state institutions to determine how to administer club sports. Many schools are anticipating a “practice only” scenario for clubs. Protocols will likely differ among sports with high contact vs. those with minimal contact.
  • Refer to USA Swimming for aquatics protocols and pool use recommendations
  • Program activities outdoors where possible
  • Expand online classes
  • Provide curbside pick-up for all equipment rentals to limit the number of people in and out of the building
  • Restrict activities such as fitness classes or pick-up games on sport courts until state regulations allow
  • Restrict any hosting of events, camps, or running team development programs until the state allows

Sasaki continues to work with our clients on how to best consider the recreation facilities and programs to adapt to COVID-19 requirements in the interest of providing their services while ensuring the safety of the campus community. As an added resource we recommend that you refer to the NIRSA resources for COVID-19 response for further suggestions on how to safely run campus recreation this semester.


Athletics plays an important role on college and university campuses, having a lasting impact on the lives of students and providing a catalytic unifier for many alumni and community members. The onslaught of COVID-19 has raised questions, some old and some new, that are forcing the hands of many campuses to reconsider the programs offered, the budgets allotted, and the logistics of providing these programs, threatening the institution that provides so much for so many.

Cutting varsity sports will have a direct impact on the demographic makeup of a school’s student body. Athletics is often a point of entry to higher education for students of color, particularly for Black students. Socioeconomic, educational, and racial injustice are all deeply connected, and by eliminating athletic programs (especially those with low financial barriers to entry like track and field), schools are taking away admissions opportunities for students who may not have the structural support to gain entry to a university through a purely academic route. While cutting athletic programs may make sense financially in the short-term, schools must consider the ripple effects that come with not having these programs in place.

While participating in sports, student-athletes glean critical life lessons they will apply as leaders in their professions and communities. A recent study conducted by Gallup on behalf of the NCAA, based on surveys with a nationally representative sample of 74,385 U.S. adults with a bachelor’s degree, finds that college graduates who participated in NCAA athletics “experience a host of positive long-term life outcomes at greater rates than non-athletes.” Student-athletes learn valuable, practical skills such as sportsmanship, time management, responsibility, verbal communication with adults and peers, and interaction and coordination in groups. They also develop good habits of fitness, competitiveness, drive, and discipline. Their athletic endeavors enrich and augment the education they receive inside the classroom, and this well-roundedness will be even more important under the stress of COVID-19. The camaraderie among teams and fans also strengthens community on campus, and it pays off in the long-term to the university when alumni gather and donate to their alma mater.

Apart from enhancing the student experience, for a select group of Division I schools, athletics, and specifically football, can play a vital supporting financial role. According to the Department of Education, at the large budget Division I schools, football generates nearly four times second place men’s basketball, which is nearly four times that of third place men’s ice hockey. Many football and basketball programs financially support all of the other programs at their institutions, and the more prominent programs have become critical factors in the economy of their cities and regions. (The debate will continue to rage about the appropriateness of the large programs and their business models, however, they are clearly entrenched in the culture and economy of their universities, and it is important not to lump all of college athletics under the criticism earned by the select few that continue to push the industry.)

While it is necessary to make changes to athletics for the safety of student-athletes in the short-term, we are working with our clients to ensure that their athletics programs can endure this temporary shock. In addition to considering the tactics outlined above, we recommend looking at the NCAA as a resource. They have provided reference material that addresses the needs and the issues facing colleges and universities of all sizes and financial levels, and the NCAA Sport Science Institute has issued a number of resource guidelines for re-opening and activating athletics programs on campus.

We will continue to work with our partner institutions to be as creative as possible to ensure that the value that athletics and recreation bring to campuses lasts through and beyond the pandemic. As students, faculty, and staff cope with the stress of COVID-19, maintaining athletics and recreation will help reinforce a sense of campus community and provide space for students to foster a healthy, active lifestyle. By implementing thoughtful changes in facilities use and programming, schools can ensure a safe integration of athletics and recreation in the mid-pandemic student experience.

Sasaki colorful logo Sasaki 中文