Writing a Pandemic Playbook

URI’s director of athletics, Thorr Bjorn, looks back on a year of adjusting to day-to-day changes brought on by COVID-19, and looks ahead, determined to return to a more familiar routine for URI’s student-athletes, coaches, and staff.

As he and his wife Cyndy went to dinner in Brooklyn, N.Y., on March 12, 2020, an eerie feeling washed over University of Rhode Island athletics director Thorr Bjorn.

Thorr Bjorn
As athletic director Thorr Bjorn cheered on the men’s basketball team against UMass in early February, it was with a mask, from an empty athletic director’s suite, in an arena with empty stands.

A day earlier, the Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Championship was cancelled—a major decision, which Bjorn had been part of as chair of the league’s athletic director’s committee. The restaurant the Bjorns stepped into was sparsely populated, a real-time preview of the months ahead.

Just 24 hours earlier, the couple had gone to dinner at a packed, bustling city restaurant, a scene that, today, feels like a distant memory.

“People were talking about COVID, and you kind of felt it was coming, but there were no masks, and the restaurant we went to was busy,” Bjorn says. “The next night, it was a lot different. The restaurant was very spread out, and there were maybe 10 people inside. It was an eerie feeling, totally eerie. We left to come home that Friday, and everything had changed.”

In the months that followed, the COVID pandemic dominated everything. College athletics became an uncertain landscape wrought with fits and starts. It began with the cancellation of the basketball postseason and bled into the halting of spring sports in 2020. As weeks passed, it became apparent that the fall 2020 season was not to be, at least not everywhere. While the Power 5 conferences proceeded with sports—particularly football—the Atlantic 10 joined the majority of conferences around the country in postponement.

“I ask, ‘Why?’ a lot. ‘Why is that the plan? Why are we doing that?’ I don’t want things done just because it is the easy way,” Bjorn says. “Health and well-being for the student-athletes is our number-one priority. But we also promised our student-athletes that we would try to give them opportunities to compete this year.

“In many cases, that is the reason they’re here—why they chose Rhode Island over another school,” Bjorn adds. “We have a responsibility to proceed in the safest manner possible while remembering that we promised we would try to provide that opportunity.”

“Health and well-being for the student-athletes is our number-one priority. But we also promised our student-athletes that we would try to give them opportunities to compete this year.”
—Thorr Bjorn

Providing opportunities to compete led the Atlantic 10 to an unprecedented decision. Plans came together for abbreviated seasons for all fall teams to have championship seasons. A similar decision was made by CAA Football, meaning that between January and April 2021, every athletic team at Rhode Island would be in season.

“What’s been amazing is the work our administrative staff and coaches have done to figure out policies and make sure we are following through on everything,” Bjorn says. “The ability to adjust to the curveballs has been incredible. It has been a challenging time that I don’t ever want to go through again, but my level of pride is over the top. Gratitude isn’t a strong enough word for the work that has been done.”

Today—January 19, 2021—Bjorn looks out his office window and sees the women’s track and field team working out. Earlier in the day, he popped out to Meade Stadium to watch the football team practice.

“It feels far more normal going into the spring 2021 semester than it did starting the fall 2020 semester,” Bjorn says. “We have proven we can do it with the basketball season, and now our student-athletes believe we are doing everything we can to deliver on that promised opportunity.

“This is not the new normal. It is a temporary pain, and it has not been easy. But we can get back to normal. We will get back, and we are doing it.” •

—Shane Donaldson ’99

Photo: Drew Adame