On March 9, the University announced its intention to allow limited competition against other NESCAC institutions for its spring athletic teams, with games set to begin in early April. The decision marked the first time in over a year that the University has scheduled intercollegiate games, following the cancellations of the Spring 2020, Fall 2020, and Winter 2020-2021 athletic seasons. However, with COVID-19 ongoing, the University accompanied its athletics re-opening announcement with an extensive list of new protocols and restrictions teams and student-athletes are required to follow if they wish to participate in Spring 2021 competition.
Like all students on campus, spring student-athletes must continue to receive two negative PCR tests on non-consecutive days each week to remain eligible for athletic activities.
However, student-athletes must also report symptoms daily on WesPortal and undergo temperature and symptoms checks before practicing or using the University’s athletic facilities. In addition, student-athletes, coaches, officials, and any other athletics support staff are required to take a rapid antigen test conducted the morning of competition to remain eligible to participate. If a test comes back positive, either for the University or its opponent, the game will be canceled.
Spring teams will be expected to comply with a set of detailed travel protocols when attending away games, including rules around safe eating and physical distancing on buses. To avoid overnight stays, competition travel radius is limited to the already small NESCAC circuit, with the majority of games currently scheduled against teams from Connecticut and Massachusetts.
When asked about the re-opening protocols, University athletic director Mike Whalen ‘83 emphasized the rigor of the newly-implemented testing procedures.
“What we’re doing exceeds the NCAA guidelines in terms of testing,” Whalen said. “Even what we’re doing in terms of our campus, with two PCR tests a week, exceeds what most schools are doing. We knew all the NESCAC schools were testing twice a week. So if we added another layer to that, by implementing the rapid antigen testing the day of [a game], that would even give us another layer of protection.”
In November, 2020, the NCAA released its second set of “return-to-sport” guidelines, with updates made in December 2020 and March 2021. For “intermediate-risk” sports, which includes baseball, softball, crew, and lacrosse, the NCAA recommends surveillance testing for between 25-50% of the team every one to two weeks, with PCR tests occurring three days before competition or antigen testing being conducted one day before competition. For “low-risk” sports, which would include track and field, golf, and tennis, the NCAA has no further testing guidelines except for day-of antigen testing or PCR testing three days prior.
The protocols athletes must follow are strict and inflexible, Whalen told The Argus. While a non-athlete on campus might miss an occasional COVID-19 test without punishment, the obligation to stay attentive has been made clear to athletes.
“We had some athletes, you know, just space out and say ‘sorry, meant to go get the test,’” Whalen said. “Well, you know, sorry, you can’t play. It’s just drilling home with them that you have to know these protocols to the letter…It doesn’t matter what sport it is. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. Like, none of that stuff matters. You either meet the protocols or you don’t. And if you don’t, then you don’t play.”
That said, beyond not being allowed to play, punitive action for athletes who break protocols will be the same as for any other student and will be determined by the severity of the offense.
“We’re not gonna punish kids because they didn’t test or didn’t meet the protocols, other than them not playing,” Whalen says.
University Medical Director Dr. Tom McLarney has been a key figure in determining whether sports could return and crafting guidelines to ensure maximum safety. The decision to return to competition, according to McLarney, was data driven.
“The COVID-19 positivity rate has continued to be low on campus,” McLarney wrote in an email to The Argus. “Also, in our contact tracing, with any of the positive cases we find, there has been no connection with student athletes passing COVID-19 during organized practices. Our colleagues at other NESCAC schools have noted similar trends.”
Devising a plan and implementing the logistics was a collaborative process, requiring the insights of both medical and sports personnel on campus and at other NESCAC schools.
“Davison Health Center, Dean Rick Culliton and Athletics, specifically Joe Fountain and AD Mike Whalen, have worked on the safe plan that we have,” McLarney wrote. “There have been many levels of communication. Just as I meet regularly with the NESCAC medical directors, Joe meets with NESCAC ATs, Coach Mike meets with NESCAC ADs, Dean Rick meets with his counterparts at NESCAC schools and President Roth also meets with other NESCAC presidents. Our planning with the athletic leadership has been great. Very collegial with the same goals of safety while letting our athletes play.”
Whalen echoed this sentiment, emphasizing that athletic and medical personnel worked together while respecting each other’s spheres and responsibilities. No protocol has been implemented without the approval of medical experts.
“The ADs did more of the game protocols—how we were going to operate, the game day type of operations. The medical people, they control all the medical decisions. We don’t make any medical decisions. We make suggestions in terms of things that we feel could mitigate any negative circumstances. We vet it through them, and then they provide us feedback,” Whalen said.
While McLarney and Whalen expressed optimism and confidence in the athletics COVID-19 protocol, they also both noted that with such a dangerous and contagious virus, caution is required.
“The SARS CoV-2 virus cannot be trusted,” McLarney wrote. “We are closely monitoring the incidence of this virus, as well as the emerging mutant strains that are problematic. If at any time we feel our current plan of intercollegiate play becomes unsafe, we stop and re-evaluate.”
Within the NESCAC, there have been recent COVID-19 outbreaks at both Trinity College and Bates College. The outbreak at Trinity was not caused by athletic competition. A public explanation for the jump in cases at Bates has yet to be given.
Whalen cited these outbreaks when expressing the challenges inherent to this spring sports season. He expressed a foundational set of ideas to summarize the approach he and the rest of the athletic community need to take in the coming weeks: hard work, attention to detail, and daily self-evaluation. These are also values that might be recognizable to those who have played organized sports.
“It’s not perfect, and there’s gonna be situations, hopefully not on our campus. We’re always aware that everything can change in a heartbeat. It’s not anything that’s permanent and we’re, again, just taking it day by day, and working as hard as we can to ensure that we’re tracking everything that we can.”
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