As Other Conferences Play On, The Ivy League Remains Confident in Its Decision to Cancel Sports

“For us, the right decision is to not be competing right now,” said Ivy League executive director Robin Harris

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Ivy League executive director Robin Harris (in aqua sweater) speaks at the 2018 Ivy League Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournament. Photo credit: Ivy League Office

In November, the Ivy League presidents voted unanimously to cancel winter sports for 2020-21 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “While these decisions come with great disappointment and frustration, our commitment to the safety and lasting health of our student-athletes and wider communities must remain our highest priority,” the presidents said in a joint statement.

The decision was not because the league was unable to figure out how to return to play, as most other Division I conferences have in women’s basketball and other sports. “We could have done [that] as well,” Ivy League executive director Robin Harris told Her Hoop Stats.

In fact, the Ivy League is perhaps uniquely well positioned to play college sports during a pandemic. Its member schools all have strong testing capabilities, and their associated hospitals are some of the best in the world. The athletic teams generally travel by bus rather than by plane, and most schools are close enough geographically to avoid overnight stays. 

Coaches in other conferences have noticed another advantage the Ivy League possesses: Penn head coach Mike McLaughlin told the Associated Press’s Doug Feinberg in mid-December that “five or six” coaches had called him to ask how he prepares his team to play on back-to-back nights—a perennial feature of the Ivy League schedule that some other conferences are adopting this season to minimize travel.

Despite those advantages, the Ivy League presidents opted to cancel winter sports because of the league’s values, a word that Harris brought up multiple times. Member schools responded to high local caseloads by sharply reducing the number of students living on campus for the fall semester, restricting group gatherings, and limiting visitors to campus. “To have exceptions to our policies so that we can have athletic competition would not be consistent with our values,” Harris said. “… For us, the right decision is to not be competing right now.”

The November decision was the presidents’ third round of cancellations due to COVID-19, each as painful as the last. The first round saw the cancellation of the Ivy League men’s and women’s basketball tournaments on March 10 and all spring sports one day later. The league had started contingency planning in February, but relatively little was known about the virus then and new information was coming to light daily. The cancellations in basketball came less than 24 hours after the presidents seemed to be leaning toward playing without fans, according to Harris. “We were in a very quickly evolving crisis situation,” she said. “‘Fluid’ was the word of that week.”

The next decision came in July, when the presidents canceled all sports through December 31 but left open the possibility that winter sports could resume in 2021 and fall sports could be played in the spring. That decision came after months of virtual meetings and scenario planning, as the presidents had much more time than they had had in March to determine the best course of action. The same process was used throughout the fall, and although the presidents tried to wait for caseloads to decrease, it was clear by November that the numbers were unlikely to allow for campus restrictions to be loosened this winter.

“Although there's different timelines and sports are impacted in somewhat different ways, the consistency throughout has been the focus on the health and well-being of our student-athletes, our campus community, and the general public,” Harris explained. “And the trends of the virus at each decision point—in March, in July, and again in November—have not been good.”

However, for Harris, the November decision differed from the others in one painful way: many winter sport student-athletes were impacted a second time.

“They lost out on something last year,” Harris said of the conference’s basketball players. “They lost out on the Ivy Tournament; they lost out on the NCAA and other postseason tournaments. … I think we had teams poised for unbelievable success last March, and we'll never know what they could have achieved. … 

“These are the right decisions, but they're not easy in the sense that it's heartbreaking.”

Despite the pain of not playing, the Ivy League women’s basketball coaches have generally supported the presidents’ decision to cancel the 2020-21 season. Princeton head coach Carla Berube told Her Hoop Stats that it was “the right decision for us and for the Ivy League” and that her players are “grateful that they are where they are right now.” McLaughlin focused on the fact that the Ivy League’s announcement “at least gave [the players] some direction” after months of wondering whether there would be a season. 

Harvard’s Kathy Delaney-Smith went one step further by suggesting that all conferences should have followed the Ivy League’s lead. “It's the right decision, it's the safest decision, and as much as it hurts, I'm fully supportive of it,” she said in a recent Harvard Athletics video. She added that she is “scared to death” for the teams that are currently playing because “I just feel it’s unsafe.”

Yet there is no sugarcoating the tremendous toll that the canceled season has taken on student-athletes. Take McKenzie Forbes, a Harvard transfer who was so invested in attending the school that she sat out last season while applying for admission. She will likely wait nearly 1,000 days from her last college game in March 2019 to take the court again. Or Princeton’s McKenna Haire and Sydney Boyer, who had their junior seasons cut short in March and their entire senior seasons canceled. (Unlike classmate Carlie Littlefield, Haire and Boyer will likely elect not to transfer next year and play another season.)

“Our student-athletes are incredibly disappointed. And I don't blame them,” Harris said. She believes they understand the league’s reasoning but expressed a desire to make the decision-making process “better and maybe more transparent.”

The lack of transparency was perhaps most acute in March, when basketball players from multiple Ivy League schools signed a petition calling out the league’s “hypocrisy” in canceling the basketball tournaments while other sports were still competing. “I completely respect that the Ivy League is prioritizing our health and safety,” current Yale senior Ellen Margaret Andrews wrote. “… I am simply asking for more transparency, as it would provide us some peace of mind despite how disappointed we are.”

This time around, the conference’s decision applied to all winter sports and was not a surprise. “I think [the players] would have been probably stunned and shocked if it had gone the other way,” Harvard men’s head coach Tommy Amaker said recently.

Even so, Delaney-Smith told Feinberg that telling her players that the 2020-21 season was canceled “was just really one of the hardest half-hour, hour Zooms I've ever been on.” It was especially difficult for the seniors, she said, but Berube noted that the news was tough to process even for the many players who took a year off of school to preserve their Ivy League eligibility and were not planning to compete this season.

Based on my conversations with athletic communications staff at each school and coaches’ statements to Feinberg, at least 30 women’s basketball players took leaves of absence for the 2020-21 academic year. That many students delaying graduation might sound like cause for alarm for the country’s top academic conference. But Harris deferred to students and their families to decide what makes sense for them, saying only that the conference “would hope and expect” that athletics is not the sole factor.

Fundamentally, the large number of leaves of absence and the Ivy League’s repeated cancellations reflect a sobering reality: the status of the pandemic in the United States has barely changed over the past several months. “It is so disappointing and frustrating and frankly exhausting that this is where we are,” Harris said. “… I would never have predicted that I'd be here talking to you like this today, based on what I thought was going to happen in March and even in July.”

The conference is currently scenario-planning for spring 2021, and Harris declined to speculate about whether a vaccine will be widely available soon enough to make a season possible. In the Ivy League’s announcement canceling winter sports, the conference also delayed all spring sports until at least March 1. “We remain hopeful that the situation could improve to allow some competition this spring,” Harris said. “… [But] I've learned enough to know not to predict what's going to happen because it's really [determined by] the trends with the virus.”

Contrary to some perceptions, the Ivy League’s cautious response to the virus does not mean that the league does not care about athletics. As of July, each Ivy League school sponsored between 29 and 40 sports, well above the NCAA minimum of 16, and the conference currently has over 8,000 student-athletes. “We value athletics; it is an incredibly important part of the Ivy League. And we value success in athletics,” Harris said.

She acknowledged that Ivy League student-athletes are “missing out on important opportunities,” even as she reaffirmed that canceling sports is the best decision for everyone’s health and safety.

“It's a disheartening and disappointing place to be,” she said. “But it's absolutely the right place to be for the Ivy League.”

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