McALLEN — The Southwestern University Pirates and Texas Lutheran Bulldogs will not make their return to the gridiron after university leaders at both institutions jointly agreed to cancel the upcoming fall football season due to rising uncertainty and COVID-19 cases, as Texas struggles to contain the regional spread of the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.

Southwestern and Texas Lutheran, both NCAA Division III schools and associate members of the American Southwest Conference, are the league’s first programs to call off fall football. The conference has yet to make a league-wide decision on when or if to return to the sport.

“Our priority is the health and well-being of the entire Southwestern University community. After many conversations and careful analysis, we have made the decision to cancel the 2020 football season,” Southwestern University President Laura E. Skandera Trombley said.

“Although the American Southwest Conference has not announced its plans for conference play this fall, I believe it is in the best interest of Pirate student-athletes to opt out of the season.”

TLU and Southwestern’s Olympic sports programs compete in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference, another NCAA DIII league whose council of university presidents voted to unilaterally cancel the fall sports season for its member schools on July 16.

The SCAC’s announcement affects cross country, golf, soccer, tennis and volleyball teams and competition at a number of Texas schools including Austin College, the University of Dallas, Schreiner University, Southwestern, Trinity and TLU, a group of schools that recruit student-athletes heavily throughout the Rio Grande Valley for all sports.

“Collegiate athletics are key pillars of the student experience at Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference institutions,” said Danny Anderson, Trinity University president and chair of the SCAC Presidents Council.

“With this decision, Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference institutions will gradually re-socialize our sport programs to campus with the goal of safe competition and a return to regular conference play.”

The Bulldogs and Pirates were both reluctant to cancel football and other fall sports outright, however, suggesting spring start times may be an alternate possibility if public health conditions permit.

“After much consideration, we’ve made the difficult decision to forego our fall football season, and we appreciate the American Southwest Conference working with us in this process,” Texas Lutheran University President Dr. Debbie Cottrell said.

“Our current public health environment is simply not conducive to ensuring the safety of our football players or those we would play against. As disappointing as this is, we are eager to work with these student-athletes this fall and look ahead to the possibility of spring play.”

Texas Lutheran and Southwestern have joined other SCAC schools and a bevy of other DIII conferences in asking the NCAA to make a division-wide announcement regarding the status of fall sports competition and championships.

The NCAA Division III Management Council announced earlier this week that schools and conferences will have more flexibility moving fall sports to the spring and will instead define the playing season, “by a certain number of days instead of weeks, and those days do not have to occur in consecutive weeks.”

“The increasing rates of coronavirus infections in Texas and heightened levels of exposure for playing football just pose too great of a risk to our athletes,” Southwestern University Athletic Director Glenn Schwab said.

“Southwestern will work with the American Southwest Conference and Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference in exploring options for playing football and all other fall sports in a condensed format this spring.”

Southwestern and TLU have had extensive communication with the American Southwest Conference as well regarding logistical concerns surrounding spring football.

The ASC assured the two schools that they would not face any penalties or sanctions for their decision and noted both were welcome to continue playing football in the American Southwest Conference in the spring should the league ultimately make that choice too.

If not, however, Texas Lutheran and Southwestern won’t be part of any intercollegiate NCAA football competition in the spring, even if the NCAA and the ASC’s fall football seasons are significantly delayed into the fall.

The Bulldogs and Pirates, though, felt the decision was a no-brainer based on the escalating public health threat posed by the COVID-19 virus.

“Once the first CDC guidelines were posted, and after hearing the NCAA chief medical officer Dr. Brian Hainline speak, I knew that even conducting football practices would be challenging, much less playing games in the fall,” Texas Lutheran Athletic Director Bill Miller said.

“Dr. Hainline explained that safely practicing and playing football in the fall would be very ‘tricky.’ With that said, we do plan to play a football schedule in the spring. Consequently, our football student-athletes, much like the student-athletes in our other fall sports, will have something to prepare for and look forward to. At this time, it is too early to determine what that schedule will look like.”

Fall sports teams at Southwestern and Texas Lutheran, which feature a number of prominent former Valley high school athletes, will continue to train and practice throughout the fall semester for a potential spring return.

TLU and Southwestern have played football together in the ASC since the SCAC stopped sponsoring football as a competitive sport in 2016.

Email: amcculloch@themonitor.com

Twitter: @ByAndyMcCulloch