What the approval process looks like for spring sports
The schedules on the Washington University website are still full of games scratched out, canceled in the wake of the pandemic. This spring though, some student-athletes are finally beginning their first competitions in over a year. Through careful planning and weighing the risk factors on a case-by-case basis, the athletic department is making decisions on whether to host games and begin each sport’s competitive season.
The decision-making process has been a collaboration between the administration, coaches and Director of Athletics Anthony Azama. That team evaluated each sport on an individual level, weighing specific concerns. For example, for the women’s tennis team’s competitions, Azama and head coach Paige Madara looked at how student-athletes would enter the facility, how equipment would be spaced and sanitized and even how student-athletes would change ends during tennis matches. That attention to specific detail, while complicated, has allowed them to think ahead and mitigate unnecessary risks. “We wanted to try to do everything we could, so we didn’t have a season that’s been canceled twice,” Azama said.
The ability to return to competition this spring has also been helped by the fact that most spring sports are played outdoors. Per NCAA guidelines, the majority of those have a low transmission rate. Thus, the Athletic Department imposed NCAA guidelines and mask strategies as well as adding a few regulations to meet Wash. U.’s own standard. For example, one bus of 24 players would be divided to two to decrease transmission risks.
These decisions have been made with the primary purpose of taking necessary steps to create a safe environment, which certainly comes at a cost. One of those costs is barring spectators, a decision Azama said has been unpopular with parents, especially those of senior athletes. To compensate, the department has streamed the games online with play-by-play announcing, expanding the audience to alumni and potential recruits. Recruitment is a process that has certainly changed in the wake of the pandemic, but coaches are doing their best to establish relationships with new members despite not being able to attend in-person games. “We are trying to articulate [the experience of the team in competition] in the recruiting process to give the feel to our recruits,” said Madara.
For the athletic department, this spring is also a period to evaluate what is feasible given the restrictions currently in place. After gauging the early spring competition, they will discuss the opportunity to allow the fall sports to have scrimmages and potentially transition into the next phase of team activity. As Azama said though, that’s “putting the cart before the horse.” Right now, the focus is concentrated primarily on the spring sports.
There are also other factors to consider, too, like COVID exposure outside of sports events. “If you see our kids away from the facility, stay away,” Azama said, stressing the importance of the players not exposing themselves to unnecessary risk. He wants to maximize the ability for athletes to compete, and that requires the athletes to make good decisions away from the facility, coaches and teammates—also not becoming victims of COVID fatigue.
As Azama talked about the past year and the validation of being able to see sports finally play, he got emotional. “I can’t put into words what that felt like,” he said. On the Sunday of the first baseball game, he got to sit in the stands for a bit because he wanted to touch base with the support staff, to thank them. It was validation after a tough year. “You question a lot of who you are, and what you are about, when that very thing that your department is defined by—competition—has been taken away,” he said, so watching the first pitches being thrown on the field rewarded much of what he’s been working towards. “Your eyes tear up after seeing the faces of those seniors who had their senior season ripped away from them.”
The coaches who have been able to compete are equally grateful. “To have the chance to represent Wash. U. in competition,” Madara said, “[and] knowing many of my fellow coaches didn’t or will not have that opportunity this year heightens the appreciation of this moment and the work the administration and university has put in.”
Senior Sports Editor Dorian DeBose contributed reporting.
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