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To play or not to play? Carleton prepares to make decision on spring season

As the snow melts and COVID-19 cases fall across the country and in Minnesota, the spring offers a promising glimpse into a post-pandemic future. Yet the fate of the upcoming spring athletic season weighs heavily on the minds of athletes, coaches and administrators as they attempt to balance community health concerns with their desires to return to competition. With the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s (MIAC) March 3 announcement of its plans to go ahead with spring competition—and a March 5 deadline for member institutions to opt in or out—stakeholders across the Carleton athletic community have been forced to contemplate where they stand on the matter. 

Spring athletes face the prospect of losing two consecutive seasons to the pandemic, a scenario particularly heartbreaking for Senior athletes who are beginning to fear they may never take the field with their teammates again. 

“This season would be my last season, and the last time I would ever get to competitively run, something I’ve been doing since I was in seventh grade,” said Senior track athlete Sophie Schafter. “It’s the last chance I would have to run and compete amongst the people who matter most to me in the world, and do the thing I love the most.”

Nevertheless, the desire to play is tempered by anxieties surrounding COVID-19, something Carleton student athletes know all too well. Late last week, a handful of student-athletes drafted a letter to President Poskanzer outlining their desire to play and their willingness to adapt to any health guidelines deemed necessary by the administration. 

“For this spring, the undersigned spring sport athletes want the administration to know that we are prepared to do all that is necessary in order to ensure that we are able to compete,” read the letter. “We understand the challenges and difficulties of competing in a spring season. We write to emphasize how important competition is to us, and the measures which we are prepared to take in order to ensure that we will have a spring season this year.” 

The letter pointed out the lengths to which Carleton student-athletes have already gone to successfully prevent COVID-19 transmission by obeying practice and lifting guidelines determined by the school. 

“To date, every Carleton athletic team has successfully practiced and lifted together without transmitting COVID-19, both amongst ourselves and within the greater community,” the athletes wrote.  

President Steven Poskanzer picked up on that thread, lauding student-athletes’ efforts to stifle the virus. “Student athletes have been terrific about social distancing and following health protocols,” Poskanzer told the Carletonian via email. “They’ve shown a willingness to do what needs to be done to keep themselves and others safe. They’ve also shown plenty of goodwill and an honest spirit. That doesn’t go unnoticed.”

Even with excellent cooperation from student-athletes, structural questions about a spring season remain. This winter the MIAC held indoor track, swim and dive, basketball and hockey seasons, with Carleton, Macalester, St. Olaf and St. Catherine’s opting out. 

That said, winter competition did not go well. Both men’s and women’s hockey and basketball seasons were plagued with postponements—the MIAC will not even recognize a conference champion for basketball or hockey. “My sense is that many people consider the MIAC winter sports season a failure,” said Poskanzer. 

Winter sports, however, differ from spring sports, and the MIAC plans to implement stricter protocols to ensure the spring season turns out better than the one winter did. For one, winter sports like basketball and hockey were deemed high-risk, while indoor track and field and swim and dive received a grade of intermediate risk from the Minnesota Department of Health. Because tennis, baseball, softball, golf and track and field are each played outdoors, the entire slate of spring sports have been deemed low-risk for virus transmission.

Secondly, the MIAC plans to institute more robust health protocols this spring. In an interactive Zoom conference held for student-athletes, Athletic Director Gerald Young and Assistant Athletic Director Heidi Jaynes relayed that they have met with MIAC representatives two to three times per week for the past six weeks to hammer out more stringent testing and contact protocols which live up to Carleton’s relatively high standards.

Young also noted that while there may be some reasons to be optimistic that the MIAC can safely hold spring sports, Carleton has no appetite to provide a season for previously canceled fall sports this spring. Young also suggested that Carleton will partake in either all or no spring sports in competition—teams won’t compete on a sport-by-sport basis due to the fact that each spring sport shares a similar risk level. 

In the coming days, Young and Jaynes will make a recommendation to the Carleton’s COVID-19 Core Team, which includes Dean Livingston along with six other administrators. Upon receipt of the letter, the Core Team will then make a recommendation to Poskanzer and the Vice Presidents who sit on the college cabinet. The ultimate decision as to whether or not Carleton will join the rest of the MIAC in competition this spring rests with them. 

While the MIAC is hopeful about being able to hold spring sports safely, President Poskanzer brought up concerns about bringing outside actors into the Carleton “bubble.” More so than other schools, Carleton has demonstrated success at preventing the spread of the virus, and when cases have arisen, they have largely been due to off campus contacts. 

The President also discussed the equity concerns which come along with allowing some students to travel off-campus for athletic competition while asking other students to continue limiting off-campus activities. “There are equity questions to consider,” said Poskanzer “Can we draw a distinction between different varsity sports? Between varsity sports and club sports? Can we draw a distinction between the baseball team and the bridge or debate teams?” 

Carleton will also look at how peer schools are navigating the pandemic when making a decision about spring sports. “We look at what peer schools have been, or plan on doing,” said Poskanzer. “Their approach is relevant to us, especially the NESCAC and Ivy Leagues.” Unfortunately for those hoping for a spring season, each of these conferences have canceled all spring competition. 

The Athletic Department,  Core Team and college cabinet are faced with a tough decision in the upcoming days. COVID-19 remains a lingering community health concern, yet no one feels great about robbing senior-athletes of their last chance to compete in a Carleton uniform. Falling infection rates and more vaccinations provide hope, but questions regarding ethics and logistics remain a hurdle. Carleton has until March 5 to opt in or out of a MIAC spring season. 

“Normally playing sports and acquiring a great education have mutually-reinforcing goals. This situation is particularly difficult because due to COVID-19 these goals are potentially in conflict,” said Poskanzer. “Ordinarily, sports reinforce the values of education, but here they have the potential to put that education at risk.”

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