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Student-athletes talk COVID adjustment issues, from team bonding to mask wearing

Updated: Oct 22, 2021

Jake Procino

News editor

Ten cardboard cutouts of human, cat and dog fans populate otherwise empty bleachers. Some are toppled over. Photo by Jake Procino.

Willamette University and the Northwest Conference (NWC), the athletic conference Willamette teams play in, agreed to resume athletic competition for most sports this spring, excluding football and basketball. This year, competition has come with many restrictions: spectators are prohibited, masks must be worn on the sideline by coaches and players and masks must be worn for indoor competitions.

Adjusting to COVID-19 protocols for practice has been difficult. Tennis student-athlete Sylvia Marr (’21) said over email that following all the protocols, especially wearing a mask or two during practice was a tough change, but she and her teammates have adapted to it. “Some people are more conscious than others and it took a lot of reminding last semester to keep people masked and distanced. This semester has been better and I think most people are doing their best to follow the guidelines,” said Marr. Figuring out transportation has been one of the more difficult adjustments for teams that practice off campus, like tennis. Student-athletes are not able to carpool as they have in the past due to distancing restrictions, and “there aren’t very good accommodations for players that don’t have cars,” according to Marr.

Outside of practice, physical distancing has had a large impact on team bonding. Marr said, “I've been trying to meet with some of the team members individually, like outside and socially distant coffee dates or lunch, to supplement some of the bonding.” Soccer student-athlete Phil Doherty (’22) said over email that the soccer team has not been able to have the usual team bonding events such as team dinners and volunteering at a food bank but, “When we can, we try to play games like mafia where we can space out and still be hanging out together safely.”

Avinash Naidu ('24) and Dante Chaney ('24) practice football. Photo by Anushka Srivastav.

For some sports, there are additional COVID-19 protocols on game day. Doherty said that the soccer team has their temperature and symptoms checked before games. While players and coaches on the side-line are required to wear masks, on-field players are not required to wear masks for outdoor competition. Student-athletes do have the choice to wear a mask, according to an email from Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Rob Passage. [Photos] on the Willamette Athletics website show many on-field players do not wear masks while playing. Despite players playing maskless, Doherty said he was not worried about transmission of the virus during games, saying: “All athletes are held at the same level of responsibility and expectation. We all as athletes, even our rivals and opponents, have worked extremely hard to be able to train and play competitive matches.”

Sign outside the soccer field that reads: "In accordance with NWC rules, no spectators are allowed at this time. No stopping or standing. Off campus visitors are prohibited at all times." By Anushka Srivastav.

Not wearing masks during on-field competition has been a point of contention for some members of the Willamette community. Messages were posted by unknown people, assumed to be Willamette students, on the side of Sparks Fitness Center, with messages saying that maskless competition is putting the Willamette student population at risk. Doherty himself said that he has heard “minor comments about competing without masks.” Some student-athletes, like Marr, share these concerns of student-athletes not wearing masks during competition. “[Playing tennis in a mask] was an adjustment at first but it's really not bad, so I don't see any reason for not having masks during competition, especially in higher contact sports like soccer. I know it's not up to Willamette, so I understand that the athletic department is simply following Northwest Conference and NCAA guidelines, but it is still something that I am not very comfortable with,” said Marr.

In response to these concerns, Doherty said that student-athletes and teams have worked hard to follow COVID-19 protocols: “I would reassure the voices concerned with maskless play that this doesn't at all reflect negligence or naivety. We are all practicing both required and suggested health guidelines, from the federal level, to state, Willamette, and athletics. We have worked tirelessly to be finally playing after well over a year.”

Posters criticizing lack of mask wearing were posted in Sparks Fitness Center the weekend of Feb. 20-21, and were taken down soon after because they weren’t approved. The image shows printer paper printed with the words, “Not unto ourselves alone are we born?,” “Bad NWC athletes! What’s our campus health worth? Why not wear masks?” and a graphic of Blitz demonstrating how to wear a mask in the middle. Photo from Jesse Buck.

Student-athletes have their own testing protocol, as well as remaining in the pool of Willamette students subjected to the random surveillance testing. Passage said that Willamette is following the testing protocols recommended by NCAA’s COVID-19 Medical Advisory Group and approved by the NWC President’s Council. Student-athletes in low and medium contact risk sports, like tennis and softball, are tested when they arrive on campus at the start of the semester, and are subject to weekly surveillance testing, separate from the Bishop surveillance testing. Student-athletes in high contact risk sports, such as soccer and lacrosse, are required to be tested weekly.

Doherty said that he received an email from an administrator regarding the concerns, but not much beyond that, “Our coaches just tell us to continue doing what we're doing, wearing masks unless we are on the field at a game, and to stay diligent with Covid protocol, like everyone should be.”

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