The case for a safe return to competition

Via Wikimedia Commons.

Just a couple weeks ago, hundreds of Vassar students locked up in their parents’ houses rejoiced at the news that they would be returning to campus this fall. For many, myself included, the initial reaction was simply relief that we would be going back at all. But, now that we have all had time to process this news, the inevitable questions about details are coming up. 

Luckily, Vassar has a pretty clear plan, and after hearing the nitty-gritty, it is the best I could’ve possibly hoped for. I won’t go into too much detail regarding that plan here, but the key point is that Vassar will be implementing an “island model,” which basically means that no one will be permitted to leave campus to minimize risk of contracting the coronavirus. 

One of the biggest questions surrounding Vassar Strikes Back: Fall 2020 Edition has been if and how athletics will take place. Vassar is part of the Liberty League conference and is a Division III NCAA school. Much like the decision on whether or not to return to campus, intercollegiate athletic policy varies drastically at schools across the country. In order to have intercollegiate athletics in the fall, risk assessments made at the level of conference, school and sport must be taken into account.

First and foremost, it should be noted that as of now, the NCAA still plans to hold fall championships as scheduled. So, at least at the highest level of competition for Division III schools, the plan is to move forward as usual. When you look at specific conferences, things get a little stickier. The NESCAC, a Division III conference like the Liberty League, has canceled all fall sports. On the Division I side, the Big 10 and Pac-12 have decided to have a conference-only model for Fall 2020, while the Ivy League has chosen to cancel fall sports. Additionally, some individual schools like Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), Union College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (all Division III), have decided to cancel fall sports, regardless of what their conferences have planned. 

Vassar’s own conference, the Liberty League, recently released a plan to return to competition this fall, albeit in a slightly compromised manner. The plan states that “the Liberty League will adhere to all state and local directives regarding athletics competition. Fall competition in all sports will begin no earlier than Saturday, Sept. 26 … While fall schedules remain in development and will be announced at a later date, competition in team sports will be against Liberty League member institutions while also permitting two additional non-league opportunities.” Liberty League commissioner Tracy King said, “A schedule focused primarily on playing league members will aid in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 while still providing a quality competitive season for our student-athletes.” 

This is all of course subject to change, but, as of now, Vassar plans to participate in intercollegiate athletic competitions under the Liberty League guidelines. It is important to note that although the league has released a plan of its own, member institutions can individually decide not to participate, as RPI and Union College have already done. But overall, great! Athletics are back!

Not so fast. Like every situation in the COVID-stricken world, it is not that simple. Vassar has agreed to follow these guidelines and plans to have athletics, but there has been some backlash from the student body. Many Vassar students have voiced concerns regarding the safety of an intercollegiate athletic season. 

I reached out to my fellow Vassar students on social media to better understand these concerns. Miriam Rovin ‘23 said, “As an immunosuppressed individual, I can’t help but feel like my health would be unnecessarily jeopardized should student athletes leave campus regularly…there is still a lot of uncertainty about how effective [testing] would be in catching all the cases (and it only takes a couple cases to endanger the whole campus).” She added that she wants to see as much of a return to normalcy as possible “without putting vulnerable students at undue risk and travel athletics, for me, does not fall into that category.” Mohtad Allawala ’23 (disclaimer: Mohtad Allawala is an Assistant Design Editor for The Miscellany News) had similar concerns but also pointed out, “Athletics is already famous for its culture of peer pressure…I am especially worried that athletes who are uncomfortable with playing sports or interacting with other schools during a pandemic will be put in circumstances where their agency is reduced.”

As a student-athlete myself, I really want to see athletics happen this fall, but I believe that nothing is more important than the health and safety of the students. Rovin brings up a couple of great points: As we have seen over the past few months, testing does not catch all cases and although it is a very useful tool for stopping the virus from spreading, it is far from foolproof. 

Additionally, as much as many of us want to see athletics back, it is not a necessity in the same way that in-person classes are. Allawala also points out that some student-athletes may feel pressured to take risks they are not comfortable with, for fear of being ostracized by their teammates (who are often the main social circle of a student-athlete). We as students are the only ones who can prevent this from happening by respecting the decisions of our classmates and teammates. No one should ever be criticized for putting their health first. There should also be a school wide policy that protects athletes from being cut if they choose not to participate this season, just to ensure no coaches are pressuring their athletes. I really understand the concerns regarding bringing back athletics and these concerns should be considered carefully and diligently.

Despite that though, I believe that bringing back athletics in a safe and controlled way is possible. The most important thing we have to keep in mind is that the current plan is to not have any off-campus competitions through the end of September, at which point the college would evaluate the safety of sports and make a decision on what to do then. Whether you agree with me or not about bringing back athletics, I do not think there is any reason to definitively cancel them at this point in time. I value the safety of my classmates and professors above all else; this is simply a matter of determining how risky off-campus sports would be when compared to the potential benefits of having such a big part of college life return this fall. The reality is, we have no idea what the country will look like three months from now.

But first, let’s discuss why we are returning to campus at all. It is risky to bring together a relatively large group of people coming from not just all over the country, but all over the world, to sleep, learn and live together. Because not all students and faculty will be able to return to campus, every class will have an online option and some will be online only, even if students that are enrolled in those classes are on campus. 

So why not just go online only? It would mitigate virus risk and all classes will have an online option anyways, so why take the chance? Two words: calculated risk. We are coming back in the fall to preserve college life and the “college experience.” None of us enrolled in the University of Phoenix because we all wanted to experience college life. Attending Vassar is first and foremost about getting an education, yes, but there is far more to it than that. 

Personally, if all I was concerned with was getting a degree, I could have just gone to my local state school and it would have been a hell of a lot cheaper. But I didn’t do that. I fell in love with Vassar. I love the other students, I love the professors, I love the campus, I love the social scene, I love the learning experience and I love the athletic experience, just to name a few pros. 

I chose Vassar because I knew I would be happy spending four years of my life there. As a true liberal arts student, I value every aspect of college, not just getting a degree from a fancy school. This is why I am advocating for a return to sports. Athletics are a huge part of Vassar life: roughly 20 percent of the student body are student-athletes. 

Practicing, competing and spending time with teammates are integral parts of college life for a big chunk of the student body. Athletics are just another calculated risk on top of returning to campus. Does the risk for the whole campus go up if we have intercollegiate athletics? Yes, but President Bradley clearly believes that later in the fall that risk may be low enough to be worth taking in exchange for a more normal college experience. If she approves, so do I; I trust her to do what is best for the student body, and so far I think she has proven her ability to do so.

In a student forum on July 8, Bradley discussed how athletics would work this fall, explaining that intercollegiate athletics will be delayed until we have all been on campus for about a month or so, to ensure we can get settled with everything else before we start adding more things to the equation.

She also noted that athletics would not be the only potential exception to the island model later in the fall, as class trips and other authorized group activities might be possible as well. Any group leaving campus would have to be tested, and if anyone tested positive, they would follow Vassar’s quarantine protocol. Bradley said that Vassar mainly wants to avoid individual students going off on their own, as supervised and well-regulated group activities pose a much smaller threat. 

I understand the fear and frustration that go along with bringing back sports, but they greatly enhance the college life of many Vassar students. Going back at all is a risk, but it is one that many of us are willing to take. 

If you are willing to take that risk, then I don’t think it is unreasonable to accept a small increase in risk from having athletic competitions. Student-athletes or not, we all want the same thing: a great college experience. But let me be clear, my support for bringing back athletics is contingent upon Vassar giving us the green light. 

If at any time they determine that it is unsafe to leave campus, as they have done for the first month already, then I fully support cancelling off-campus competitions. For me, the best part about Vassar’s plan regarding athletics is that they have deferred making this decision until late September because we really cannot accurately evaluate the risk that athletics would pose three months from now. It may be that off-campus competition is too risky, but I just do not believe we are in a position now to accurately judge the risk for something that wouldn’t take place until October. If necessary, we can cancel athletics at the end of September before anyone ever leaves campus for a competition. The only thing you can truly predict about this virus situation is that it is going to be completely unpredictable.

I think we can all agree that nothing is more crucial than keeping all students safe and healthy, with athletics it is just a question of how much risk we would actually be adding. I believe a situation where intercollegiate athletics are quite safe and pose only a small risk is a realistic one, but only time will tell. I trust Vassar to properly evaluate the situation we are living in when the time comes to make a definitive decision. In the meantime, let’s all work together to balance safety with the best possible fall, continuing to listen to the guidelines the college gives us and having open, civil conversations about what campus life will look like.

2 Comments

  1. While I appreciate that you see both coming back to Vassar and the return of athletics as calculated risks, I think it is important to reassess this position. The calculated risk we take by coming back to campus is a decision that we make collectively, for everyone’s benefit. The plan Vassar has put out will hopefully allow as many students to come back to campus as possible, and the experience of being back on campus will be offered to everyone who chooses to come back. Athletics are not the same. Athletics are a calculated risk made my a small subsection of fall athletes that will dramatically impact the lives and safety of everyone on campus, regardless of their student-athlete status. The calculated risk you are taking to participate in your sport is only “calculated” because you get the benefit of competing in your sport. For everyone else on campus, it is just a risk that they see no benefit from and have no control over. I think you are moving in the right direction by making sure athletics doesn’t pressure any athletes to compete when they don’t feel safe, but a better move would be to cut fall sports as a whole.
    As we continue to address the privileges athletes receive on VC’s campus over the average student, it is crucial to recognize the island model is effectively going to be broken just so athletes can participate in their sports. There is no other way to frame that except as preferential treatment. There are plenty of other groups on campus that perform shows, do vital community work, and compete off campus that won’t be afforded the same luxuries as Vassar’s NCAA athletes. And while I support the decision to maintain an island model for off-campus travel, that should undoubtedly include athletics as well.

  2. I am reopening athletics out of capitalistic greed. It is dangerous, but I don’t care if a few kids get sick. I just want lax bros to be happy.

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