Home Sports Out of the Spotlight, Colleges Try to Scrape Together a Sports Season

Out of the Spotlight, Colleges Try to Scrape Together a Sports Season

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This article is part of our latest Learning special report, which focuses on ways that remote learning will shape the future.

Soccer drills in socially distanced quadrants. Masked volleyball players in gyms. Padlocked fields. Positive tests. Zoom team meetings. Canceled. Postponed. Competing. Stay tuned.

This is the collegiate student-athlete experience in fall 2020, one that is as dizzying as it is disproportionate. Since March, college sports on every level have been fundamentally disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Some fall sports are competing, but that varies by region, by community, by politics, by division, by conference and even by team. College football, that billion-dollar machine, picked up momentum when the Big Ten reversed course to play a fall season, despite multiple outbreaks of Covid-19 and cries of outrage that unpaid athletes were risking their lives.

But what about sports and colleges that do not generate huge revenues and that play for the love of the game? The largest number of student athletes in the country compete on the Division III level of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, numbering more than 196,000. Unlike their Division I counterparts, they do not receive athletic scholarships, nor are they generally as physically gifted. But they are just as competitive.

“As student athletes, we are always pushing ourselves,” said Meghan Skevington, a senior captain on the women’s soccer team at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. “And when we don’t even know if that sport is going to happen and you still see these athletes going out, running, doing fitness, strength and conditioning,” she added, “that just shows our dedication and commitment.”

The N.C.A.A. in August canceled all Division III fall championships. The plan is to have fall sports compete in their conferences alongside winter and spring sports after January. But that is only if Covid-19 testing protocols — no positives within 72 hours of competition — can be followed.

For Randolph-Macon to have all its 18 teams competing in the spring semester, that would entail some 5,550 tests, Jeff Burns, the athletic director, said he calculated. In early September, he said tests were costing $73 each. For small colleges, that math would simply not be feasible. And even if the price dropped substantially, Burns added, would those cheaper tests be accurate?

“We are building toward a time frame where we are counting on faster, more reliable, cheaper testing,” said Jay Jones, the commissioner of the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, based in Indiana. “If that doesn’t happen, D-III is in a world of hurt.”

Jones explained: “Do we continue to employ our coaches? Do we continue to have all of the programs at our schools? You worry that if we don’t have sports at all, what happens? Will students still come?”

For the 438 member schools of Division III, athletics drive enrollment. But just as important to many schools as tuition fees are housing fees. “If you have a thriving athletic program where you have 30 to 40 percent of your students participating, they’re on campus — and schools make money on dorms,” said Steve Ulrich, who for 26 years was the executive director for the Centennial Conference in Lancaster, Pa., and now writes a Division III newsletter.

He predicts that the schools will have to rethink their limited travel budgets and play teams geographically closer.

ImageCleaning a soccer ball after a practice by the Randolph-Macon women’s team.
Credit…Julia Rendleman for The New York Times
Credit…Julia Rendleman for The New York Times

The economic fallout from the pandemic has been significant from Division I down to Division III: Schools on all levels have announced they are cutting a total of 233 programs so far, according to The Associated Press. That includes the athletic powerhouse Stanford University, which after this year will eliminate 11 of its 36 programs.

Randolph-Macon women’s soccer had hoped to be defending its Old Dominion Athletic Conference championship. In late September, the team was able to take the field for small group drills.

“We’ve never been so excited and so happy,” Skevington said. “I told my co-captain, ‘This is the weirdest thing that I would get this much happiness from passing.’”

But just 100 miles north at Gallaudet University in Washington, students are not even on campus. Gallaudet, a college for the deaf and hard of hearing, is conducting classes remotely this semester. And that adds its own challenges.

“It’s a huge hit on me and my life,” Timel Benton, a senior quarterback, said from his home in Columbia, S.C. The Gallaudet campus experience is special, he added, because everyone uses sign language, making it “a safe place for all of us.”

Now, students navigate a world where people are wearing masks that make lip reading impossible. All Benton and his teammates can do is gather on Zoom calls conducted in sign language. What’s missing is the bonding with body language.

“Just being around each other makes the biggest difference, not necessarily talking about football, but talking about life, talking about how each other is doing,” he said.

Credit…Sean Rayford for The New York Times

Mack van der Velde, who plays soccer at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., admitted that he was out of sorts without the daily discipline.

“I catch myself now, in class, or doing homework, just daydreaming, going back and watching videos of our old games instead of doing homework,” he said. “Because it’s what we should be doing.”

Nicki Bissey, a cross-country captain at Linfield University outside Portland, Ore., would use her practice runs to spur her studying for exams.

“I’d play a mind game with myself,” Bissey said. “If I’m doing a tempo workout, I say, ‘the faster I finish, the faster I can go study.’ I haven’t had that.”

In mid-September, she couldn’t even run outside because of the wildfires; she had to run the indoor stairwell of her apartment complex with a mask.

The pandemic is even affecting cross-country, which is a noncontact sport. The increased health risks lurk at the starting line when as many as 30 teams gather, with 10 runners per team.

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“As long as the coronavirus is an issue, I did not want to be competing,” said Sam Klein, a senior cross-country runner at New York University.

Division III is allowing athletes to extend their eligibility an extra year, providing their team competes in less than half of the season, so Klein said he might apply to a graduate program at N.Y.U. to compete for a fifth season.

Johns Hopkins University, which has been a leader in providing statistics and information on Covid-19, is operating remotely this semester. The stadium where the field hockey team plays has been locked.

Sadie Abboud, a sophomore on the team, lives in Baltimore across from the field; she uses yoga mats as a surface to practice her stick handling when not doing team yoga sessions on Zoom.

“I understand the decision, and we have to be that role model if we’re producing all this data and everyone is following our lead,” Abboud said, “but at the same time, it’s tough seeing so many other schools are going back.”

On the Division I level, few sports other than football are competing, and mostly in southern conferences. Field hockey teams at Duke and at the defending champion, North Carolina, are playing a limited fall season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Women’s soccer and volleyball teams are playing in conferences including the A.C.C., Southeastern Conference and the Big 12.

The N.C.A.A. declared that all nonfootball fall sports in Division I would have their playoffs in the spring.

Now, teams like Texas A&M women’s soccer will play eight of its usual 20 games within the S.E.C. this fall.

Kendall Bates, an A&M midfielder, said the team was tested for the virus three times in the week before the first game. The Aggies began with a 3-0 victory over Ole Miss on Sept. 19, and that first goal seemed to release frustrations. The team celebrated with a brief hug on the field.

“I have no words for the amount of joy that I had,” she said. “We know we are super blessed to be playing.”

Credit…Kyler Ludlow/University of Michigan

The Big Ten decided in August not to participate in any fall sports, then abruptly changed course for football in September. Women’s volleyball will not begin competing until Jan. 22.

Mark Rosen, coach of the University of Michigan women’s volleyball team, took a Zen-like approach to their competitors already getting a jump on them.

“Why worry about what they’re doing?” he said. “In this time, with this situation, it’s not going to be fair; this pandemic is not fair.”

Division III athletes, who are used to competing with fewer resources and fanfare, see the upside of being sidelined for now.

“I feel like a lot of athletes are going to come out stronger than they were, especially mentally,” Bissey, the Linfield cross-country runner, said. “They’ve been challenged so much already, and they’ve seen things they never even thought they would see, all at once.”

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