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Ivy League Cancels Spring Sports Despite Pleas From Athletes

The league’s leaders did leave open the possibility that some teams could play against nearby colleges if public health conditions improved.

Ivy League university presidents, who had previously canceled football and basketball seasons, all but ensured that no sports will be played this academic year when they voted Thursday not to allow league competition this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Ivy League leaders did leave open the possibility that some teams could play sports like baseball, softball, track and field, and lacrosse against nearby colleges if public health conditions improved. But that would require drastic changes at colleges in communities that range from large cities, like Columbia and Pennsylvania, to more remote areas, like Dartmouth and Cornell.

In order for sports to be played, each of the eight colleges would have to enter Phase IV, the final tier of requirements set by the league’s members to fully reopen campuses; currently, no Ivy League campus has moved past Phase I, according to a league spokesman.

“It was definitely heartbreaking, but we were not surprised with the decision,” said Eduardo Malinowski, a senior second baseman at Penn. Like most Ivy League athletes, he learned of the decision not from his coaches but through the league’s announcement on Twitter.

The Ivy League was the first conference to shut down sports last March, when it canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. The decision outraged some basketball players, but not for long: A little more than 48 hours later, the N.C.A.A. tournaments, Major League Baseball, the N.B.A. and the N.H.L. had all stopped playing.

While major professional and college teams have returned, playing around and through outbreaks and stoppages, the Ivy League has not. Presidents of the league’s universities announced in July that no sports would be played until Jan. 1, and in November the pause was extended until March 1. The league thus became the first to cancel its football and basketball seasons.

In doing so, the Ivy League’s presidents have held onto a core principle: that athletes must be treated essentially the same as students who do not play sports.

The presidents did so again on Thursday, saying in a statement that continuing on-campus operations “requires limitations on travel, visitors, gatherings and other elements that are essential for intercollegiate athletics competition.” The statement called the decision a “necessary” one.

Yale started its 2020 season in South Carolina against the Citadel. The Bulldogs played 10 games before the season ended.
Mic Smith/FRE2 AP, via Associated Press

Still, it was a gut punch for spring-sport athletes, many of whom were robbed of nearly an entire season last year. And for baseball players, the timing is especially cruel as other colleges around the country play their season-opening games this weekend. The Ivy League is the only Division I conference that will not try to play baseball this season.

“For a league that prides itself in being the leaders of creating opportunities for students, we have had ours ripped away,” Ryan Marra, a sophomore first baseman at Brown, wrote on Twitter.

He added: “We have been constantly tested, monitored, and have followed all the protocols we were told would get us a season. Numbers needed to go down, and they have. We needed to stay healthy, and we have. The reality of it is this decision was made a long time ago.”

Members of the men’s and women’s lacrosse teams at Brown started an online petition last month that urged Ivy League presidents to let sports seasons go forward. It has garnered more than 10,000 signatures.

Also last month, Yale’s baseball captain, Cal Christofori, wrote an open letter to university leaders that expressed Ivy League athletes’ frustrations about being in limbo — even as they tried to decide whether to take leaves of absence so they could preserve their eligibility.

How those pleas landed on the ears of Ivy League leaders is unclear. Robin Harris, the league’s executive director, who is a liaison to the university presidents, declined an interview request through a spokesman. But she did issue a statement saying that “the presidents created a potential pathway to competition in large part because they are aware” of the athletes’ desire to compete.

But Malinowski said he wasn’t certain the presidents had been informed of all the steps that his team, and probably others, had taken to play safely — and that Penn’s baseball team had not recorded a positive test.

“Ultimately, I believe our voices were not heard entirely,” said Malinowski, who batted .362 in two-plus seasons and plans to transfer to Virginia Tech next fall and play as a graduate student.

“There was still some sort of biased lens,” said Josh Nicoloff, a senior infielder at Columbia, who had been working out at home, in Ladera Ranch, Calif. “I understand health is the top priority, but I think the decision shows how much they looked into the letter and heard our voices. If they really did listen, the decision would have been different.”

Last week, the Ivy League announced that it would break from tradition and allow graduate students to play in the next academic year. But such a concession was not expected to affect many athletes like Malinowski because of the difficulty of getting into an Ivy League graduate school (especially after applying at a late date) and the cost of an extra year at colleges that do not give athletic scholarships.

Some coaches and players viewed that decision as a sign that the spring season would be canceled.

Still, until Thursday, many of them trained as much as health protocols would allow.

At Columbia, where most students have not returned to the Manhattan campus, and at Cornell, which has begun welcoming students back this semester, baseball players were restricted to working out on their own.

At Dartmouth, the baseball team would be almost all freshmen and seniors, because the campus will be open only to members of those classes in the spring quarter, which begins next month. Princeton’s roster was down to 18 players, with four juniors taking a gap year so they could return next season.

At places like Penn and Princeton, workouts could continue. Perhaps public health conditions will improve quickly as vaccinations ramp up, and the universities can find neighboring schools within the required 40-mile radius to play a handful of games this spring.

But for many, at least right now, it would feel like running out a routine ground ball — just going through the motions.

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