By Madison Sellers
Over 1,300 people have signed a recently released petition asking Sewanee to overturn its decision to prohibit athletic teams from traveling for the 2021 spring sports season. Since Sewanee is the only school in the Southern Athletic Association (SAA) who will not be traveling this season, outcries of unfairness, confusion, and anger are justifiable responses. But they are only justifiable to a certain extent.
The petition, titled “Petition to the Vice Chancellor and the Boards of Regents and Trustees of Sewanee: The University of the South,” was organized by parents and alumni along with students, who begin by writing that they “are committed and motivated to bring some sense of scientific, rational, and heartfelt normalcy to the Sewanee education and athletic experiences and general well-being of its community.” They go on to warn of the “dangerous consequences for Sewanee” as a result of the sports decision, but to me the information spread in the petition’s description seems far more dangerous to the Sewanee community.
A major criticism I have with the petition is the way it portrays the administration as taking pleasure in limiting the freedom of its students. From reading the comments of those who have signed the petition, the largest reason for signing is because people feel restrained and are longing for a “normal” college experience, which they view as being stolen by the administration, who seem to have created the bubble and prohibited sports travel just for the sake of controlling students’ lives. Although it may feel this way to students inside the bubble, and to parents and alumni looking in from the outside, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Of course everyone is desperate for some sense of normalcy; it’s been nearly a year since things were “normal.” Here’s the problem: things simply cannot be normal right now because we are in a global pandemic and people’s lives are at stake. The vice-chancellor made the only appropriate decision for the safety of the Sewanee community by not allowing teams to travel from campus, and, as a student athlete myself, I firmly stand by that decision.
Any form of travel and contact with others poses a risk of transmission, and no matter how many safety precautions are taken, I think the fact that the rest of the conference is allowing competitions at all is incredibly irresponsible. Even though Sewanee’s decision seems unfair compared to the rest of the SAA schools, we are in a unique position compared to those other schools due to our rural location and strong connection to the surrounding community. If we are willing to put the health and safety of our community on the line just for the sake of athletic competitions (at a Division III school nonetheless), that does not reflect well on our sense of care and responsibility for others.
The petition writers “contend that the bubble is nothing but an illusion.” They cite a common criticism that many students, including myself, have brought up before: if students are trapped on campus while faculty members are able to come and go freely, then the bubble is not a true way to keep the community safe, since faculty and staff could easily bring Covid in from the outside. This line of thinking has enabled a significant number of students to justify leaving campus, in some cases bringing Covid back themselves.
While this logic makes sense on the surface, this is not a valid argument for the bubble’s ineffectiveness. The Sewanee Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory has proven through contact tracing that zero of the positive cases among students both last semester and this semester have come from faculty or staff cases, and multiple studies have shown that, when proper precautions were taken, the risk of transmission in the classroom is remarkably low, near zero. Professors are not the ones to blame for Covid on campus.
If the bubble is an illusion, then how have we managed to have zero positive cases among the student body for the past three weeks? How have we managed to avoid an outbreak so far this semester? The bubble works. It’s still early in the semester, and as long as students continue to take the bubble seriously and remain on campus, there is no reason we should find ourselves dealing with an outbreak.
Other schools in our conference are not able to create a barrier like this between themselves and the outside world because they are not set apart from public life like we are on the mountain. Why risk the safety we’ve created up here by having teams travel and mix with people who are not as protected as we are?
The petition goes on to state that the “geographical area of the bubble includes residences and businesses that are public and frequented by non-university persons daily who are not required to follow Sewanee’s safety protocol.” This is an incorrect statement. Vice-Chancellor Brigety has instituted a mandatory mask directive “for all persons on the Domain—to include residents, visitors, students, faculty, and staff,” laid out in a letter directed to the entire community and all visitors. Everyone who enters the bubble—including to visit public businesses on campus—is required to abide by this masking directive. Again, even with faculty and community members traveling on and off campus, the bubble is effective.
This does not justify students breaking the bubble, though. The entire purpose of the bubble is to minimize the risk of transmission as much as possible. Since many faculty and staff members live off campus, there is no possible way to prevent them from going home or coming to work, since maintaining in-person instruction is Sewanee’s foremost goal. But since all students live on campus, and since we have just about all the resources we need to live right here, there is no reason for us to leave other than for approved appointments. Travel for sports is not mandatory; to minimize risk as much as possible, sports teams cannot be allowed to travel.
I won’t go into how the petition writers cherry-picked very specific data points to support their argument. But in one section they cite that “in Tennessee, only 2% of COVID-19 cases are hospitalized. 70% of deaths are those over age 70, but 0% for those under age 21.” Just because we’re less likely to die from Covid doesn’t make it safe for us to get sick. College students can still experience significant detrimental effects on their health due to Covid, and they can easily spread it to others who are at greater risk. There is a significant population of older people in the Sewanee community whose lives would be put directly at risk if student athletes brought Covid back from traveling to a competition.
This is also severely unfair to the non-athlete student population on campus that is committed to protecting the bubble and would be forced to manage the increased risk of transmission if teams were allowed to travel. If even one person dies or has significant long-term health problems as a result of contracting Covid because an athlete left campus, it will be too many.
We are not the only ones who have made sacrifices at Sewanee during the pandemic. It is extremely selfish to pretend that we have given up more as athletes than the rest of the student body, and it is extremely selfish to be willing to put them at risk for our own sake.
In another section, the petition cites that “one in four young adults ages 18-24 considered suicide during the pandemic, which is more than double of that recorded in 2018. Depression and anxiety increased four and three-fold respectively. Given that 99.5% of those infected by COVID-19 recover… the odds of losing a student or faculty member is likely lower than the chances of losing a student to depression and suicide due to Sewanee’s onerous and unreasonable restrictions.”
This comparison is extremely insensitive to those who have increasingly struggled with their mental health over the past year. It is unacceptable to simply claim that students are more likely to die as a result of Sewanee’s decisions, decisions made to keep them safe, than die from Covid. I can’t speak for everyone, but as someone who has had to manage increased depression and anxiety during the pandemic, I can speak for myself and say that my mental health challenges are not a result of Sewanee’s decision to prohibit the travel of our sports teams, but because of the overall consequences of being in a global pandemic.
I would feel differently if sports were banned entirely and not just travel for competition, but the great part of being in the bubble is that all teams can safely continue to hold consistent practices this semester. The only real difference between this season and any other season is travel, which I’ll admit is significant, but athletes shouldn’t take for granted the fact that Sewanee has allowed teams to practice in groups greater than 10 from the start of the semester, when the gathering limit for outdoor events was only raised to 25 this past weekend.
I’ve always relied heavily on cross country and track to support my mental health, and having consistent practice and getting to see the team every day is incredibly important to me. There are still ways to feel like a team and put meaning into every practice without relying on the excitement or pressure of competition for motivation. Athletes will just have to shift their focus this semester from externally competition-based to more intrinsically team-based motivation.
I decided to go to a DIII school so that, in addition to running, I could also focus on academics, seek out other extracurricular activities, and have a balanced social life outside of the team. That’s the beauty of Sewanee athletics; we get to continue to play and develop our athletic skill at the collegiate level while pursuing so many more opportunities. Every athlete here cares deeply about their sport, and we all went DIII for a reason. I don’t think it comes as a surprise to anyone to say that Sewanee is not a predominately athletics-minded school—ask any non-athlete—and it doesn’t need to be. The DIII experience is also about finding meaning outside of sports.
The petition makes a couple points that I agree with, though. The writers bring up the fact that the administration promised to release a decision concerning the Spring 2021 athletic season by January 15, 2021, the deadline for Easter semester tuition and room and board, yet this decision was pushed back to February 8, which prevented student athletes and their coaches from moving into the semester with crucial information to prepare for the upcoming season. This may have impacted some student athletes’ decisions to return to campus, optimistically hoping to travel this season, but by the time the decision was released, they had already paid for this semester’s room and board. The petition says, “The overall perception is Sewanee moved the goal posts during the decision process to entice payment of room and board for the Easter semester,” and I have to agree. The administration framed the issue as if there was a decent possibility for safe athletic travel this season, which definitely got some athletes’ hopes up, and their delayed decision is at least partially to blame for the backlash they received.
I also agree, to an extent, with their point that “tested opponent athletes coming to Sewanee is no different than allowing tested Sewanee athletes to go to them. All players come in contact with one another regardless of location.” Allowing opponent sports teams to compete here poses a risk of introducing the virus to campus, even if they all test negative, and for this reason Sewanee should not be hosting sports competitions, either.
Everyone has made sacrifices to support one another during the pandemic; athletes must do the same. Even though it feels like this pandemic has lasted for an eternity, we need to remember that these circumstances are temporary, and the more we are willing to sacrifice in the short-term, the sooner we can safely get back to normal. I’m just as upset and disappointed as every other athlete about not being able to compete, but for the sake of our own safety and those we care about, this is just how it has to be for now. I can’t wait for us to travel and compete again once it is safe to do so.