Many of the international travel bans and restrictions put in place around the world to prevent the spread of COVID-19 are now causing trouble for universities in the United States, including Missouri.
They’ve put collegiate sports in a never-before-seen predicament: Athletes from out of the country might not be allowed into the U.S. to join their teams in time for their fall competitive seasons.
And with around 43 international student-athletes on varsity teams, Missouri is struggling to find a solution.
“There’s just not a lot we can do with these travel restrictions, and we don’t know when that’s going to end,” said Stephanie Priesmeyer, Missouri’s women’s golf head coach. “We found out [last week] that they’re not issuing any visas right now. The countries that impact us, the European countries, those students are not going to be able to get back this fall. And our incoming freshman [Martina Munoz], from Spain, she had an appointment with the embassy to get her visa on July 24 and now that got moved to November, so that’s not looking promising for her to get here this fall. So now, we don’t know what’s going to happen with fall.”
Another program facing these challenges is the women’s basketball team.
The program’s 2020 recruiting class currently includes two international players in Australian guard Sara-Rose Smith and Spanish guard Mama Dembele.
“It’ll be really difficult to tell what the future holds with travel bans and such,” said Ashleen Bracey, the assistant coach who heads international recruiting for Robin Pingeton’s team. “As of now, our recruit from Australia has an appointment set with the embassy. So as long as that appointment sticks and they don’t cancel it, she’ll be able to get her F-1 visa and travel. Australia’s restrictions are a bit looser right now so as of now, we’re in good shape with Rose.
“As for Mama, the U.S. embassy in Madrid has actually canceled a bunch of July meetings. They’re pushing these meetings back until it’s safe for them to have in-person meetings. The issue that we’re running into is that we don’t have a meeting date for Mama. So we’re looking at options to request an emergency meeting for Mama to be able to come [to Columbia].”
Chris Wootton, MU’s head tennis coach, expressed some uncertainty for the upcoming season as well. His roster currently includes five international players.
“Everything’s ever-changing,” Wootton said. “We have everything scheduled, we’ve got our start date, and everyone’s supposed to come back, but we really don’t have any idea because of COVID-19. There’s certain things we don’t know about. Are all the international students going to be able to come back to the United States?”
In an email, Ryan Griffin, the director of Missouri’s office of international student admissions, said the university is trying to help these students get into the country.
“Mizzou, through its membership in groups like the Association of American Universities (AAU) and Association of Public Land-grant Universities (APLU) and by direct contact with Missouri Representatives and Senators, has lobbied to encourage the U.S. State Department to resume student visa issuance and to prioritize students with plans to enroll in the fall term,” he said. “As this is outside the university’s control, we are also preparing contingency options for international students and student-athletes who are not able to arrive on campus with us to start the fall term due to visa and travel restrictions caused by the global pandemic.”
Missouri isn’t the only school to be heavily affected by these regulations.
“There’s a lot of schools around the country [with rosters] that are mostly international, and they’re saying they’re going to have a hard time fielding a team,” said Priesmeyer.
According to the NCAA website, 12.1% of all student-athletes originated from countries outside the U.S. in 2018.
That puts many teams in difficult positions in 2020 as fall competition approacheswith some teams’ seasons in jeopardy.
Recruiting is another area affected by travel bans.
“[Division 1 coaches] are all in the same boat. None of us are able to go out, watch, and have context and evaluations with these prospects,” said Mark Leroux, whose men’s golf roster at MU includes players from Iceland, Taiwan, Scotland and Finland.
Wootton was adamant about sticking with his recruitment philosophy for the tennis team.
”We recruit worldwide,” he said. “We’re a global sport. We’re not going to go away from international recruiting. We’re going to recruit all the Americans as we can and we’re going to recruit as many internationals as we can. We’re not going away from that.”
Bracey spoke about how the women’s basketball staff has adapted its recruiting in these times.
“What recruiting has transitioned into is watching a lot of film,” she said. “High school and AAU coaches will send a lot of film and highlights. Also, we’ll have Zoom calls. Being able to set up a ton of calls with our recruits and actually take them on a virtual campus tour and basically do an unofficial visit virtually, so that’s been pretty cool.”
But despite the uncertainties, Missouri’s coaches can see a silver lining to the difficulties the pandemic has caused.
“You know, the adjustments and consequences have been a lot, but what we’ve really seen is human character come out,” said Wootton. “They’ve become better human beings, better friends, better daughters and better sisters. They’ve had all this time to spend together and it’s really been a unique experience for all the staff and all the athletes.
“I think everybody’s gotten better because of the time we’ve had together. COVID-19 has given us an unbelievable opportunity to really get some cohesiveness and union within our team. We’ll be able to gain some experience and with a more experienced team, we’ll be able to make a run at the SEC.”
Leroux said, “For me and from what I’ve heard through the Zoom calls with the guys, is the excitement to get going again. They’ve all got another year of eligibility and in particular, Rory Fransen, one of our seniors who’s opted to come back and compete again [is] thrilled to have another opportunity.”
And they all realize that at the end of the day, despite the difficulties each team has faced, the most important thing is the health and safety of these athletes.
”We’re glad everyone’s safe and we’re just looking forward to seeing our players and having them back,” Priesmeyer said.