By Peter Buckley ’23 and Sadie Pileggi-Proud ’21
On March 3, President Wendy Raymond announced that Haverford College would be abstaining from intercollegiate athletics for the 2021 spring semester. This marked the loss of a second consecutive season for Haverford’s spring athletes. Two days later, the Centennial Conference announced that they had endorsed a plan allowing for intercollegiate conference play. As neighboring schools Johns Hopkins, Dickinson, and Ursinus gear up for spring competition, Haverford athletes will be watching from the sideline.
“Our decision arises from the need to do all we can to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of students, faculty, and staff,” wrote President Raymond in her March 3 email. “Intercollegiate athletic competition, along with other activities ranging from off-campus volunteer service to co-curricular field work, is incompatible with COVID mitigation efforts on our campuses and the persistent risks arising from close interpersonal contacts of many sorts.”
Of the 6,525 COVID-19 tests administered to students during the fall 2020 semester, only seven tests returned positive results. However, President Raymond has attributed this success to the college’s strict COVID guidelines and does not believe that now is the time to loosen restrictions, citing both high local infection rates and low vaccination numbers.
To some student athletes, this move came as no surprise. Jackson Trevor ’22, a member of the men’s tennis team, said that coming into the semester he was not optimistic about the chances for spring conference play. “We had pretty in depth discussions with Coach [Brendan Kincaid]… Everybody asked the question, ‘Hey Coach, what do you think the chances are of us getting to do conference matches and play other schools’, and he said ‘I think it’s going to be less than 5%’… my expectations for playing were not high. Not high at all.”
Joe Weisberg ’21, a captain on the men’s lacrosse team, echoed this sentiment. “I think for me, I read the writing on the wall, that Haverford wasn’t going to let us play regardless of what other schools were going to do. So that was my expectation, although I hoped that they would change their mind.”
Of the spring athletes interviewed for this piece, none were outright shocked by the college’s decision. However, the conference’s and college’s repeated postponement had allowed cautious optimism to rise among many.
In December 2020, roughly three months before Haverford announced the cancellation of 2021 spring athletics, the Centennial Conference presidents met to formally discuss the possibility of spring competition. This meeting ended inconclusively. On December 10, 2020, Haverford Athletic Director Wendy Smith notified spring athletes of the conference’s lack of decision. The conference subsequently pushed their announcement date back to January and then early February, before finally making their announcement on March 5.
“Given that we were supposed to have a decision in December, and then they kept pushing it back… I thought they would be working really hard to come up with a way for everybody to play, even if it was heavily modified and had a lot of restrictions for us to follow,” said Eve Dallmeyer-Drennen ’22, a member of the softball team. “My expectations were that we would have something because they were taking so long to make a decision.”
Nathan Akerhielm ’21, a captain on the men’s track and field team, said that the college’s lack of public decision by early March began to sway his initial scepticism around the possibility of having a season. Throughout the winter, Akerhielm’s coach, Tom Donnelly, had been keeping him up to date on the indecision of both Haverford and the Centennial Conference.“I think that gave me a little false hope that we might compete,” Akerhielm reflected, “just based on the fact that we got into early March and they hadn’t said no yet.”
When asked what they wished the college would have done differently in delivering their ultimate decision to student athletes, an obvious similarity arose across all responses: athletes wished there had been more transparency and communication. As the decision was pushed further and further back into the spring semester, students were left without a clear idea of what the final outcome would be and how this decision was being made. Athletes felt strung along as the Haverford administration, free to make a decision independently of the conference, made no move to do so.
“I think throughout this process there was a lack of transparency,” said Ryan Giovenco ’21, a captain on the baseball team. Giovenco discussed the difficulty of waiting on Haverford to announce a decision while receiving so little information about the deciding process. The waiting was worsened by the fact that other Centennial schools were deciding on athletics independently of the slowly progressing conference decision.
“I mean we look at Swarthmore,” noted lacrosse player Jacob Shiff ’22. Shiff pointed out that Swarthmore announced their cancellation of spring athletics in October, over three months before Haverford. “Given the same decision today, I wish we were told earlier.”
This sentiment encapsulates the feelings of all spring athletes who shared their perspectives. Indeed, senior captain of the women’s tennis team Ananya Prakash ’21, said she believes that much of the frustration with the cancellation from spring athletes wouldn’t have arisen if the decision could have been related to athletes sooner.
“I understand why athletes are upset,” Prakash went on to say. “But at the end of the day we want to take care of the community and be there for the community and we’d be putting members of Haverford’s community at risk… Haverford was just doing what they thought was best for us and our safety.”
Despite much frustration from spring athletes, the administration shows no indication that they will renege on their decision. Teams will hopefully have the opportunity to engage in intramural play, but their chances for competition with athletes outside the Haverford community are slim to none.
Certainly, the college made the safer choice, but the degree to which their decision represents the safer choice is a magnitude that will remain unknown. It’s possible that athletic engagement with other Centennial teams would have caused a spike in Haverford’s COVID cases. It’s also possible that spring athletes would have been able to conduct a safe and rewarding season of intercollegiate play. Weighing the likelihood of each of these scenarios, and the myriad intermediary hypotheticals, is an impossible operation.
There seems to be an interesting pattern possibly emerging across numerous colleges and universities. The more “prestige” a school has (or seeks to have), the more quickly and emphatically the school cancels its athletic participation. Fascinatingly, Covid infection performance/outcome data does not seem to correlate well to the athletic decisions. Instead, prestige (or prestige aspiration) seems to have more explanatory power. If this is true, then cancelling athletics is a virtue signaling tactic, designed more to increase the long-term prestige of the institution than to protect the short-term health and safety of students. To test this hypothesis, I suggest constructing two scatter plots with each school represented by a data point. The first analysis would plot Endowment per Student versus an Athletic Cancellation Score (ACS) and determine the r-squared fit. The ACS would factor in the degree to which the school is participating in athletics (% of normal number of games played against other schools) and proactivity (# of days before normal season start) by which the school declared its athletic intentions. The second analysis would plot a composite ranking of the school averaged across several ranking systems (LACs and research universities in separate pools) versus the same ACS and the r-squared fit again computed. If the result of these two plots are a tight fit (0.7 or higher let’s say), then we have to start questioning more deeply what is motivating these cancellations, safety or politics? If there is no meaningful correlation, then we’ll have to keep searching for the answer to this befuddling mystery of Covid as partly a medical phenomenon and partly a social construct.
I think it might be more a question of schools doing what they can get away with. Haverford can get away with cancelling sports because they aren’t a huge part of our reputation, but could not get away with keeping students off campus to the extent that more prestigious schools like Harvard or Stanford have, since the average student probably values their education more here, and objectively the degree itself is worth less so remote school makes less sense. Notre Dame is thus an interesting case: very prestigious and probably could’ve retained a solid percentage of its student body had it stayed remote, but football is especially important to its reputation/culture (and thus presumably its donors) so it was one of the first schools to announce that it were bringing back students this fall. Maybe the weirdest category is the one that includes places like UCLA: it has almost no in-person classes outside of the medical school, since its prestige+reasonable cost means it can retain its students, but it’s also one of the strongest all-around sports schools, plays in the Pac-12, etc–so most of its students are taking all online classes while the basketball team moves on to the elite eight. Johns Hopkins is maybe the biggest exception under my framework–lots of money, very prestigious, athletics less important to its reputation than any big school aside from MIT or UChicago–but still is having sports this spring. I think that it might actually still be instructive though: maybe having (arguably) the best medical school in the world plus a small army of epidemiologists is necessary to reach the point where you can actually optimize your plans to provide the most value to students with the least risk rather than figuring out what you have to offer and backfilling safety guidelines from there. I agree, though, that the remarkable lack of knowledge as to where/how people getting covid every day are actually being infected opens the door for lots of calculations that aren’t exactly about medical risks.