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Senior student-athletes speak out on the Ivy League’s most recent decisions

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On Feb. 11, the Ivy League Council of Presidents announced that current senior student-athletes would be given an extra year of competitive eligibility if they enroll in a graduate program at their current university for the 2021–22 academic year. Exactly one week later on Feb. 18, the same Council came out with yet another decision — that the Ivy League would not see athletic competition for the remainder of the spring.

The Daily Princetonian reached out to over 190 senior student-athletes for commentary on these two decisions. Those included in this article are 10 senior student-athletes across seven varsity sports. Most of the respondents have requested for their comments to be published anonymously.

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On the temporary eligibility waiver

Prior to the Feb. 11 announcement, Ivy League eligibility rules did not permit graduate students to participate in athletics. In other words, student-athletes could not use their four years of athletic eligibility in the Ivy League after their undergraduate education. This differs from NCAA eligibility rules, which allow Division I graduate students the opportunity to participate in athletics as long as they have eligibility remaining and are within five-years of initial undergraduate enrollment. In the fall of 2020, due to the pandemic, the NCAA approved a blanket waiver, granting all fall and winter sport athletes an additional year of eligibility as well as an additional year to complete it.

Some athletes responded positively to the Feb. 11 decision. 

“I think this is a great opportunity to make up for the lost time spent competing for Princeton,” a senior on the men’s heavyweight crew team said. “For many of us, this was the end of the road for our athletic careers and now, this is an opportunity for us to finish competing for ourselves and with our teammates. It provides closure for our careers as opposed to the abrupt end that it initially looked like it would be.”

A senior on the men’s track and field team agreed that the decision presents a “wonderful opportunity” to consider “various opportunities the Princeton experience has to offer”. 

“I think having this extra year will grant us some security knowing we can broaden our knowledge and further explore our interests and connections within the Princeton setting,” he said. 

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But others were less enthusiastic, with most of the frustration and criticism centering around the timing of the decision. Because application deadlines for all graduate programs at Princeton University have passed, the opportunity for graduate-level eligibility only extends to student-athletes in the class of 2021 who have already applied to one of the Graduate School's 40 departments.

Shortly after the Feb. 11 announcement, Grace Brightbill, a current senior on the women’s field hockey team, wrote an email to the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) Office of Graduate Admissions. In her email, which was signed by nine other student-athletes in four different departments, Brightbill requested that the department consider extending the deadlines for the Master in Public Affairs (MPA application) and Master in Public Policy (MPP) applications.

“Most of us have applied to other prestigious MPP/MPA programs across the country where we can continue our academic and athletic careers — unfortunately, the Ivy League decision was made well after the application deadline, so we could not know at the time that the opportunity existed to stay at Princeton. In order to ensure equity to potential applicants, we request that admissions be reopened to all Princeton seniors.”

She received a reply the same day.

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“While we are sympathetic, we have one deadline each year, December 1, and are unable to accommodate this request,” the email read. “We had an extraordinary interest in our community this year and are very far into our admissions process.”

Eli Krahn, a senior on the men’s track and field team, was not surprised by the Ivy League’s recent announcements.

“While it is a nice gesture, it is too late to really help anyone,” Krahn said in reference to graduate eligibility. “This would have been a very welcome decision if it had been announced in the fall, but it will help only a very small number of people now.”

Marissa Webb, a senior on the women’s water polo team, said the decision “could have seriously changed the game, but now it's just going to help a few athletes who were planning on attending Princeton for graduate school, and had no intention of participating in athletics.”

Several others expressed anger and disappointment. One senior on the women’s track and field team called the Feb. 11 decision “a performative move to make [the Ivy League] look better before cancelling our seasons.” Her teammate called it a “calculated move from the Ivy League,” the timing of which “was inconsiderate beyond words.”

“Personally, I could not be more emotionally and mentally drained by the way they have dragged out their decisions and the way they have given ambiguous updates along the way,” she continued. “Needless to say, I am truly disheartened and disappointed in the way the administration has treated senior student-athletes this year.”

One senior on the men’s track and field team called it “no more than a face-saving measure.” He added that some of his teammates had actually appealed to the Ivy League for similar eligibility relaxations in the spring of 2020, but were “categorically rebuffed.”

“For the League to make this decision now, months after graduate school application deadlines have passed, is nothing more than the Ivy League's archaic and arbitrary rules concerning eligibility on full display,” he said.

Krahn disagreed. “I don't expect the graduate programs to make any exception for athletes, nor do I think they should. I understand they are in a tough scenario and, while I wish we were able to compete, I respect their decision to put public health first. This is the decision I expected them to make.”

On the cancellation of spring competitions

The criticism from student-athletes on the cancellation of athletic competitions largely revolved around the fact that most other athletic conferences, including the Big Ten and Pac-12, have managed to hold competitions, despite the pandemic’s restrictions. The NCAA also approved proposals to move fall championships to the spring for a number of sports such as field hockey, cross country, soccer, and football. In fact, 16 colleges and universities across five conferences played at least one football game in the fall of 2020, and the Ivy League is one of only two conferences listed on the NCAA’s website that suspended its football spring season entirely.

“I appreciate that the Ivy League is listening to science and adhering to public health guidelines, but it's quite frustrating that it is one of the only athletic conferences to do so,” a senior on the women’s track and field team said.

In order to host sports championships, the NCAA has taken numerous measures, such as mandating that winter and spring 2021 national championship brackets and field sizes do not exceed 75 percent of their standard capacity and performing Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing and antigen testing with regularity. Others rules include mandatory face coverings during team practice, the use of electronic whistles, and social distancing whenever possible. The NCAA also has a special protocol in place for student-athletes who test positive.

“There are so many other D-1 colleges that have been training and competing throughout COVID-19,” a senior on the women’s swimming and diving team said. “There are ways to do it safely, especially if a school has the resources. When everything goes back to normal, Princeton athletics is going to be behind all of the other D-1 colleges that have been training and competing safely.”

“I am still disappointed that for sports that are entirely socially distanced like track and field, the league didn't get more creative in how it could hold competitions,” a senior on the women’s track and field team said. “I could do a whole competition without coming within 100 feet of anyone.”

A senior on the men’s heavyweight crew agreed that the Ivy League could have permitted many teams to compete safely. He explained that crew members within a boat are spaced one and a half meters apart at all times, and face the same direction.

“It seems as though the athletic department threw out any opportunity for sports that could compete this spring who by the nature of the sport are always socially distanced can compete because of other spring sports being unable to at all. My thoughts have always been consistent: that the administration has not done a thorough job on examining the ways in which certain sports operate to promote opportunity for competition.”

The Ivy League did leave room for “local spring competition” if there is a drastic improvement in public health conditions. But seniors aren’t so optimistic.

“This again is an empty gesture,” one senior noted. “Spring competition must comply with travel restrictions for on-campus students and university visitor policies. If we cannot travel outside of Mercer County or Plainsboro, how do we play games?”

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