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Carls and Coronavirus: How the NCAA’s response to COVID-19 could affect Carleton athletes’ plans

The COVID-19 pandemic has not left any American community, demographic, region, or enterprise unaffected. As a whole, American culture has been put on pause: music festivals and concerts have been postponed, education has gone virtual, and many religious services have been suspended. Though certainly not the most societally consequential, perhaps no cultural component has ground to a halt quite like sport. Given that sporting events involve both close personal contact and tend to result in mass gatherings, nearly all formal competitive athletic events have been suspended since early March, affecting millions of athletes and their families. 

Much of the public discourse surrounding the lack of collegiate athletics has focused on the disappointment of athletes who were not able to complete their seasons. Social media has been inundated with “love letters” from athletes to their respective sports, with hoards of followers responding with excessive empathy. Broad media attention has also focused on how professional athletic leagues are handling their annual influx of athletes from the college level. Facing apparently insufferable revenue losses, Major League Baseball decided to shorten 2020’s amateur draft from forty rounds to just five, so that teams would not be required to pay thirty-five extra players.

One component of collegiate athletics that sports media on the whole is utterly failing to cover is how the virus has affected the plans of student-athletes who compete in spring sports, like baseball/softball, track and field or tennis. All NCAA spring athletes were unable to complete their 2020 seasons, while many teams, like Carleton Baseball, hardly competed at all. The team managed to compete in a lone double-header before Carleton made the decision to cancel all spring sports.

Ultimately, the varying lengths of spring seasons have proved inconsequential. Following the cancellation of spring sport championships, the NCAA decided to grant a waiver of eligibility for all spring athletes, so that these athletes can play an extra year, and will not lose out on a year of being eligible to compete for an NCAA school. These measures have been adopted by all three NCAA divisions, meaning that athletes from Carleton Baseball, Softball, Tennis, track and field and golf will all be eligible to play an extra year. Spring student-athletes throughout the NCAA have rejoiced at the news of added eligibility. The extra year arrived like an answered prayer to spring athletes, many of whom were crushed when their final season of competitive athletics was cut short.  

Of course, this presents an interesting conundrum for Carleton spring athletes. Many spring athletes plan to prolong their studies within eligibility rules, allowing them to play an extra year at their current college or university, so they do not have to transfer into a new athletic program. This is not possible at Carleton. Carls are rarely permitted to study for a thirteenth term, and only done so under very specific academic circumstances. There is no opportunity for spring athletes to continue to study at Carleton, should they wish to continue playing.

All things considered, Carleton athletes have a choice between seeking an institution with graduate-level education, at which they could theoretically redeem the recently gifted year of eligibility, or forgoing playing four years of college sports altogether. 

Sophomore infielder Cayten Gardner, who has intentions of pursuing a career in law, and therefore attending a graduate law program, suggested that the prospect of playing baseball as a law student excites him: “Baseball has been my biggest passion for as long as I can remember. I’d love to continue playing after Carleton. If I find a good fit that allows me to get the most out of my education as well as play baseball, I’ll play. But as always, my education comes first, and that’ll be the most important factor in my decision.”

The nature of track and field, which runs three different seasons per year, puts track athletes in a remarkably interesting position. As sophomore pole vaulter Sydney Marsh ’22 put it, depending on the circumstances, she could come out of the COVID-19 pandemic with three seasons of eligibility: sophomore outdoor, junior indoor, and spring outdoor. “Track is unique in that it is pretty independent, so I feel that transitioning to a grad school program would not be as difficult as some team sports,” said Marsh. “As a pole vaulter, and multi (heptathlon/pentathlon) athlete there are usually some schools looking to earn a few extra points here and there, so there is a pretty good likelihood that I could attempt to move up to a DII or DI school. I’m not exactly sure where my path will take me, but competing in track and field after my time at Carleton is definitely something I have been considering while in quarantine.”

Some athletes who plan to attend graduate school could care less about continuing to compete. Should fall sports be cancelled, women’s soccer’s Brie Forster ’22 doesn’t see herself allowing a potential year of eligibility to determine where she would attend graduate school: “At this point in my life, I don’t think it’s going to be a big enough priority to affect my decision on where I go. Especially considering I”d only be playing for one extra year, I think a lot of other factors are going to be far more important in my decision on where to attend grad school.” Neither does lineman Oliver Jacobs ’22, who has aspirations of attending Officer Candidate School when he graduates. Jacobs “will not come back for a thirteenth term” at Carleton, nor attend a traditional graduate school anywhere else, so to recover a potential lost year of football. 

As Gardner and Marsh make clear, the impact of coronavirus on the plans of Carleton spring athletes is significant. As the clock ticks closer to Carleton making a decision about fall term, only time will tell whether fall athletes will face a similar dilemma. 

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