Additional reporting for this article done by News Editors Annabelle Wang and Lucy Brewster.
Making good on her promise to deliver a decision on spring sports around March 1, President Elizabeth Bradley announced Monday that Vassar athletic teams, both varsity and club, would be included under a new rule allowing chaperoned travel off-campus.
In an official Vassar College press release, President Bradley cited the move as a potential boon to students’ mental health struggles and an opportunity to re-engage with the community. She also mentioned that these privileges were subject to rescission based on the status of COVID-19 on campus.
Other groups eligible for travel included field researchers, classes on trips and those volunteering in the community. All those journeying off-campus will be obligated to take a rapid antigen test within 24 hours of leaving and be approved by the newly created Off-Campus Travel Review Committee, which will be composed of representatives from different areas of the College. Certain varsity athletes participating in sports classified as “high risk” by the NCAA, such as rugby, will be subject to more testing as well.
Vassar Athletics further stated that they would make competition schedules for the spring teams, which include lacrosse, rowing, rugby, tennis, track & field, golf, men’s baseball and men’s volleyball, available on each team’s page on the website within the next few weeks. They plan to construct these schedules so as to avoid overnight travel, the need for indoor dining and any schools that might not agree to rigorous safety measures. Any bus travel will be at limited capacity.
Most schools competing with Vassar will be subject to stringent safety restrictions by default, given that all members of the Liberty League Presidents’ Council unanimously agreed to move forward with athletics this spring. According to their plan, since Vassar has stated that they will require athletes to wear masks during competition, their Liberty League foes will be required to do so as well. The plan also includes “general health guidance” for daily life, expecting all athletes, coaches, officials and other competition staff to wear face coverings, social distance, wash hands frequently and report symptoms daily. Testing protocols for athletes vary based on the risk level of each sport; essential staff for every sport are required to have either a PCR test within three days of play or a rapid test within one day. The Liberty League also stated that competition would not begin until at least March 26.
All Vassar spring teams compete in the Liberty League, save rugby and men’s volleyball. The Tri-State Rugby Conference announced that they would leave the decision to resume competition up to their member schools; Vassar appears poised to compete. A decision from the United Volleyball Conference is forthcoming.
The College’s plans were first announced to athletes and their families in a Zoom Webinar conducted by Director of Athletics Michelle Walsh on Monday. She outlined Vassar’s plan to compete as taking place on three distinct levels: athlete, coach and team. Any student may opt out regardless of whether their team or coach does, and their standing with the team and department will not be affected. If a coach opts out but a team wants to play, the department will pursue other options. If a team as a whole doesn’t want to play, perhaps because of a lack of players, they may opt out as well. Teams and coaches are expected to discuss the decision amongst themselves before arriving at a final conclusion. Overall, the College seems highly likely to resume some level of inter-collegiate competition for the first time since before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
When asked to comment on the significance of the opportunity to compete, Walsh underscored just how special it was for the players: “Our spring sport student-athletes already lost a season to the pandemic, which makes the fact that those who wish to play will be able to do so, albeit in a limited fashion, tremendously meaningful.” Whereas fall athletes managed to get in a full slate of competitions in the previous academic year, the pandemic abruptly ended spring sports last March, almost as soon as they began.
Despite her enthusiasm for returning to sport, Director Walsh was also especially cognizant of those who might choose not to participate. She acknowledged: “For others, this may not be the right time to return to competition and it will be important that we provide a space that is supportive of all of our community members.”
Criticism and condemnation of the College’s decision to allow inter-collegiate competition was fierce and swift. While many are excited about the prospect of Vassar returning to athletic competition, several are infuriated and argue that this decision affords athletes privileges over the rest of the student body. Within an hour of President Bradley’s announcement on off-campus travel, there was a petition on Change.org calling for the decision to be delayed until the entire student body was vaccinated. The creator, Itamar Ben-Porath ’21, later removed the petition after learning that athletes would not be gathering in locker rooms or removing masks during competitions, but stated on Facebook that there was still room for debate about just how safe the College’s plan was.
Some student athletes also expressed frustration with the College’s decision. “The whole idea of the ‘island model’ was to create a bubble in which the Vassar community could function safely. This gave an opportunity for students to be able to come back to campus, and to ensure safety, especially for immunocompromised students and staff,” commented Bailey Carrillo ’22, a member of the track & field and cross country teams. “In this case, I believe that safe is better than sorry, and it is not fair for a small minority on campus to be putting our safety at risk. We are nowhere near ready to return back to some sense of normalcy, and so Vassar’s decision on this issue is a blatant disregard of their initial promises,” she added.
Liam Condon ’22, a member of the squash team, concurred. “Personally, I feel like it’s not worth the risk, but quite a few of my teammates are excited.” He explained that squash, a winter season sport, does not have the green light to compete yet, but the team may have opportunities to compete later in the spring.
Director Walsh responded to these criticisms by highlighting the inclusive nature of the off-campus travel privilege, which also provides opportunities for all students to participate in class trips, local volunteer work and field research, although it is unclear how many students will be able or want to work through the application process in order to take advantage of these freedoms. Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana echoed Walsh’s reasoning, explaining, “Athletics is just one of a long list of activities that will be supported with this policy, so I do not feel it is correct to say that student-athletes are receiving preferential treatment … the other Liberty League schools have committed to meticulous testing and masking protocols that have been shown, based on NCAA research, to enable safe interactions for athletic events.”
While competition is a crucial part of a vast majority of student-athletes’ college experiences, the other off-campus opportunities are generally utilized by a much smaller portion of the student body. Even for these students, the college has not yet provided guidelines for how they may earn trip approval; they likely will not have an entire department behind them in any case. Nevertheless, Walsh emphasized that athletes must follow all the same protocols that apply to anyone leaving campus, and reiterated her department’s commitment to not just athletics, but an equal educational environment for all students at Vassar.