Last week saw the conclusion of what was an increasingly frustrating and confusing road for many spring sport athletes. The question of whether or not they would have a season—whether or not they even should have a season—had long been a point of contention for Vassar’s administration, with the implications of such a decision reaching past athletics and into education.
Allowing athletes to play amid a global pandemic seems—at first thought—like a horrible idea. COVID-19 has imposed its will on any figure who dares challenge it, and while athletes will often do anything to play, we know quite well how quickly COVID can incinerate any hope for an athletic season. But something gets lost behind the statistics of the pandemic’s destruction: the humanity of the lives molded by the pandemic’s rampage. The acknowledgement of both death and disease is a necessary and important one for contextualizing the vicious nature of COVID, but for every graph detailing COVID rates spiking and for every extra imposition placed on Vassar’s campus there is an individual struggling to navigate their way through the most complicated moments of their lives. This idea perhaps stands two-fold for most student-athletes, because their actual sport has been the guide that directed their navigation. To be without your passion during a typically tumultuous point in life is difficult enough; to be forced to manage the often brutal loneliness of COVID restrictions without a chance to play is a nightmare.
To be particularly honest, I don’t have much interest in offering my critical opinion on whether or not athletics should continue on Vassar’s campus. I have no background in immunology nor public health, and any opinion I could offer is rooted primarily in anecdotal stories. Using these anecdotes as evidence for Vassar Athletics’ reopening—or not—is not what interests me. Rather, listening to these particular individuals and understanding how they are coping with and adapting to COVID’s many challenges is valuable in and of itself. I did just that—reaching out to a couple of Vassar’s most accomplished athletes to listen to their stories—before the decision to play was even made.
It was in these conversations that a number of unanticipated consistencies began to arise. It would be easy to expect many of these athletes to be frustrated with their situation. Many of them are. What was not expected was the gratitude that almost every athlete I interviewed collectively shared. Volleyball player Gavin van Beveren ’23, for example, described the huge positive impacts of playing sports (in any capacity) on his mental health: “For me, playing volleyball has always acted as a serious reliever of stress,” he emphasized. “I depend on competition and athletics for a sense of security of my mental state and practicing has drastically helped me with the day to day pressures. So yes, I’m super grateful [to be able to practice].”
Van Beveren, perhaps more than any other athlete on Vassar’ campus, had every right to be frustrated with the way last year’s season ended. An American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American First Team recipient last year, van Beveren was in the midst of one of Vassar’s great individual seasons, and as rapidly as those accolades came, his opportunity for competition vanished. The Vassar men’s team was riding a 16-5 record and competing for the first overall ranking in Division III volleyball before the United Volleyball Conference decided to cancel the season.
Van Beveren’s gracious attitude doesn’t mean that the pandemic posed no challenges to his mental health: “Under COVID I had actually begun to seek help for my anxiety as the pressures of the pandemic had only exacerbated my preexisting anxieties.” Focusing on his psychological well-being has also, according to van Beveren, aided him on the court: “I have grown a ton over quarantine and part of that development was prioritizing my mental health above all else,” he explained. “This has in turn tremendously helped my game. While I have obviously worked out during quarantine I find that my most vital aspect of my game development has come from this mental health prioritization.”
Van Beveren’s responses do more than just highlight the humility of Vassar’s reigning Rookie of the Year. They demonstrate a particular kind of thinking that is readily present among the college’s student-athlete base. Sports are more than simply a leisure activity for van Beveren and many like him, instead offering a particular lens through which these individuals view their day-to-day activities. So when a particular challenge comes up, the hurdles that they must inevitably overcome have as much to do with their particular sport as they do any other aspect of their lives.
This sentiment was made even more clear in my conversation with Alessandra Fable, a women’s lacrosse senior and captain, who had to face the pandemic’s constant challenges in fear of never competing again.
Fable emphasized that while she understood where some of the college’s indecisiveness surrounding having a spring season came from, at the same time, lacrosse was central to who she was: “It’s not all of who I am, but it’s a huge part of my identity,” Fable detailed. “I’ve been playing lacrosse since I was nine, so getting to keep playing is something I’ve worked hard at for over a decade. So it’s not something that was just given to me” she said. In that way, the game was foundational to her personhood and—as every athlete must eventually do—confronting the end of that particular chapter without adequate closure was a brutal dose of reality, both for the nine-year old picking up a lacrosse ball for the first time and the twenty-two year old facing a world as cloudy as it may have ever been.
Fable also acknowledged how lucky Vassar athletes are just to practice: “I understand how fortunate we are to be able to participate in these large group activities, to be able to be together as twenty people,” she began. “I just wish people who weren’t part of the athletic community also realized that a lot of those similar opportunities are open to them now, and I wish the athletic staff did a better job making that clear.”
Yet, what Fable got at next and throughout much of my conversation with her is an underlying part of Vassar’s current reality, at least as this writer sees it. Most people—athletes or otherwise—are not particularly happy: “Vassar was my favorite place in the world for the first three years I was here, I was always looking forward to coming back whenever I left, and now—yeah—I wasn’t too excited to come back after this break,” she explained. “I was walking to class recently and had someone say that I only ever wear my lacrosse gear to class. Well, it’s because I had to go to lift right after I finished. It’s little things like that that I don’t ever remember happening before this year.”
The unhappiness of the students in the face of a once-in-a-lifetime global health catastrophe has burrowed itself into the campus culture in many ways. And for Fable, the separation that she sees between those who play sports on this campus and those who don’t, the latter group being those for whom privileges such as gathering in groups are not exercised as regularly and perhaps not made as readily available, has only grown wider because of resentment that has been amplified by that unhappiness: “I’ve felt [a divide] this semester that I haven’t felt in any of my freshman, sophomore, or junior years here,” Fable explained. “It’s frustrating. People who you considered your friends or peers, it now feels like they’re watching you. I think some of that is normal, people want to respond when they feel like they’ve been wronged–for better or worse. But I think along with that, if the administration was a little more open and clear about their processes then we wouldn’t deal with these issues as readily. Particularly with the decision [to return to practice] the administration needs to be clear exactly why we’re allowed to do this, so that we don’t see serious backlash from the students in general.”
Ultimately, the impacts of Michelle Walsh and the Vassar Athletics staff’s decision to resume play will come after the games have been played. It’s the unfortunate reality of decisions taken in the context of COVID, that consequences will only present themselves when the contacts have been made. This article is not intended to be a commentary on Vassar’s decision; takeaways like that are not what is valuable here. However, given the nature of the moment, it’s clear that these athletes’ struggles, and the stories that have come out of them, are still extremely relevant.