The last time the Bushnell University women’s basketball players gathered for a game, it was March 12, 2020, and they were in Sioux City, Iowa.
The Beacons had just wrapped up a morning shootaround in preparation for the most anticipated matchup of a special season — an evening date with the University of Antelope Valley in the first round of the NAIA Division II Women’s Basketball National Championship tournament — when devastating news arrived.
The game was off. The tournament was canceled. The coronavirus pandemic, in the early stages of its first surge through the United States, was about to change life forever.
“It’s not the way you want to end a season,” said Chad Meadors, coach of Bushnell, a Eugene school formerly called Northwest Christian. “In the back of our minds, we still can’t help but think about what could have been.”
Ten months later, Bushnell, along with every other lower-division college basketball program in Oregon, is still waiting to play. While Gov. Kate Brown has granted exceptions for Oregon’s four Division I basketball programs to compete during the pandemic, the rest of the state’s programs remain grounded, their sport deemed a “high-risk activity” and unsafe to play as coronavirus cases soar across the United States.
The measure is designed to keep college students and Oregon residents safe and curb the spread of the virus, of course. But for the student-athletes and coaches at Bushnell and the rest of the state’s small schools, they can’t help but wonder why it’s safe for Division I programs to play but unsafe for them.
“It’s been so frustrating,” Bushnell sophomore Aspen Slifka said. “We’re right across the street from UO, literally less than a mile away, and it’s been hard to watch them practice and play. It feels like we are being discriminated against because we’re a small school. And that’s really tough. It’s like our coach says: ‘If it’s safe for some, it’s safe for all.’”
For months, Bushnell administrators and players have been pushing Brown and the Oregon Health Authority for the same rights as their peers at Oregon, Oregon State, Portland State and the University of Portland. But return-to-play proposals submitted in October have been rebuffed or ignored, even though they include regular COVID-19 testing and other enhanced safety measures, and that likely won’t change anytime soon.
“Oregon’s exception for collegiate sports currently applies only to NCAA Division I schools,” Charles Boyle, Brown’s deputy communications director, told The Oregonian/OregonLive in a statement. “No other collegiate institutions are eligible to submit protocols to OHA for review at this time.”
So while the state’s largest programs play on, emboldened by influential regional conferences and buoyed by the power of lucrative television contracts, Bushnell and its peers have been relegated to bystanders, forced to watch with envy from the sidelines. But they refuse to watch quietly.
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It takes only a few moments of a short chat with Slifka to grasp how passionate she is about fighting for the season. For the Beacons’ four seniors. For the sanity of her and her teammates. For the basic tenet of fairness.
“We understand there are a lot more important things than sports right now,” said Slifka, who is from Banks. “But this has been our lives for over 10 years. It’s part of who we are. To be able to get this season back for our seniors and returning players, who have worked so hard to get to this spot, is also important. It’s a big part of having good mental health, a big part of our lives. It would mean a lot for us to have this back.”
The Beacons and the Cascade Collegiate Conference submitted a return-to-play proposal to the OHA on Oct. 8, including enhanced safety measures, regular COVID-19 testing and other protocols similar to those submitted by Oregon’s four Division I schools. The OHA, according to school and conference officials, reviewed the proposal and passed it along to Brown’s office. Weeks passed with no movement and little input. Around this time, UP and PSU ran into similar hurdles with Brown’s office.
On Nov. 13, Brown ordered a statewide holiday “freeze” in hopes of stemming the spread of COVID-19. Nine days later, near the end of the two-week restrictions, Brown granted UP and PSU exceptions to resume all basketball activities and, within days, the schools played their first games. Shortly thereafter, Brown’s office told Cascade officials the state would not be accepting any more return-to-play proposals.
Along the way, there was little to no communication from government officials, and, to this day, conference officials don’t know if their safety protocols were adequate or whether their plans were simply ignored.
“The severity of this virus and the challenges of life right now are not lost on us, and we’ve said this from the very beginning,” said Robert Cashell, the conference commissioner. “We recognize there’s a lot going on. But the frustrating thing has really been the lack of overall communication and just the understanding of the basic guidelines. We all would have been better served had we been told, ‘Look, here are the thresholds you need to meet to participate. If you can meet these, go forth. If you can’t, you can’t.’ We’ve been offering up solutions, but not really knowing if it’s what they’re looking for.
“We certainly aren’t trying to assign blame. No one caused this. It’s a situation the whole world is dealing with, and we’re trying to keep it all in perspective. It’s very serious and people are losing their lives and livelihoods. We want to play and we want to participate, but we also know there’s a lot of issues surrounding it.”
The loudest voices in the push to play have come from Slifka and other Bushnell players. They’ve touched base with news organizations and written op-eds pleading their case. They’ve sent letters — and a signed basketball — to Brown asking for clarification. They’ve emailed government officials for information. Slifka even reached out to 12 members of the Oregon House of Representatives who hail from districts that include small colleges to lobby for help. She’s heard back from only two: Raquel Moore-Green and Paul Holvey.
Most recently, Slifka created an online petition, “Calling on Oregon Governor Kate Brown for fairness in Oregon college sports.” The petition has generated more than 1,700 signatures in support.
Brown, who did not respond to Bushnell’s signed basketball, has remained unmoved.
“Oregon’s Division I institutions spent weeks in the fall working with the doctors and health experts at the Oregon Health Authority to implement rigorous health and safety standards,” Boyle told The Oregonian/OregonLive in that statement. “COVID-19 is still spreading in our communities, and contact sports remain a high-risk activity according to public health experts. While Oregon’s Division I teams have implemented daily testing, quarantine and isolation protocols, and other health and safety measures that will help mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19, there is no way to eliminate that risk.
“Governor Brown understands that this is a difficult time for all of Oregon’s athletes, from the youth level to college sports. But to expand Oregon’s sports exception would put more communities at risk. In the meantime, the best way we can all work together to bring back youth and more college sports in Oregon is to drive down the spread of COVID-19 by continuing to wear masks, maintain physical distance, avoid indoor social gatherings, stay home when sick, and get vaccinated when it is our turn.”
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Perhaps the most humbling part for Bushnell came shortly after Oregon’s Division I programs resumed their seasons and out-of-state teams from the Cascade — including Northwest University and the College of Idaho — traveled to Oregon to play games against UP, Oregon State and Portland State.
“Through all of this, that was one of the more frustrating times, if you will,” said Cashell, who lives in Corvallis. “When we saw NAIA teams from Idaho and Washington, including a couple from our own conference, coming here to play, it was disheartening. It’s impossible to explain to student-athletes in Oregon how that possibly could happen. I don’t think the state really ever imagined that would happen. It’s just an unintended consequence.”
Meadors has watched with amazement as his players have turned into activists to fight for their cause, and he applauds that they’ve done so in a “real positive … and civil way at a time when many people aren’t really civil.”
But while students at Bushnell continue to fight and hope, the conference has effectively accepted defeat. At this point in the season, Cashell said, it would be difficult for Oregon teams to squeeze in the minimum number of conference games required to qualify for the national tournament. So conference officials are instead focusing on non-contact sports like baseball and softball, which are preparing for seasons, and keeping their fingers crossed that the virus will wane enough to allow for some kind of truncated exhibition basketball season in March or April.
But that’s little consolation for Slifka and the women at Bushnell, who had aspirations of returning to Sioux City to finish where they left off last March.
“Aside from the mental health aspect — and that’s big — this is their identity,” Meadors said. “This is what they have chosen to do. For many people, this is about money. The NCAA has to make their money. Well, we’re just little old NAIA and it isn’t about money for us. But it’s still important to our players, and it’s still important to our kids to have an opportunity. It has become more about behaviors and less about money.
“If it’s safe for some, it should be safe for us. If it’s not safe for some, it’s not safe for anybody, and they shouldn’t be playing.”
— Joe Freeman 5/8 firstname.lastname@example.org 5/8 503-294-5183 5/8 @BlazerFreeman 5/8 Subscribe to The Oregonian/OregonLive newsletters and podcasts for the latest news and top stories.