How colleges got student athletes back on the field during a pandemic

How central Ohio universities got student athletes back on the playing field during Covid-19.

Laura Newpoff
Otterbein senior Myiah Kelley on the soccer field in 2018.

In March 2020, the men’s and women’s swim and dive teams at Denison University were just days away from competing for a title at the NCAA championships. At Otterbein University, Drew Kasper, the No. 1 ranked Division III wrestler in the country in his weight class, was preparing to compete for a national championship, a big deal for a program that at the time was just five years old. And at Ohio Wesleyan University, the men’s lacrosse team was en route to Pikesville, Maryland, to face off against the Mustangs from Stevenson University.

The meet, the match and the game never took place because of Covid-19.

While 2020 was mostly a lost year for sports at those Division III schools, their athletic departments stayed active to get protocols in place so students could compete again when it was considered safe. Today, winter sports—basketball, swimming and diving, track and field and wrestling—are up and running at a smaller scale even though the NCAA has called off championships. Here’s how the schools navigated the pandemic to make sports safe for their students.

Art of what was possible

University officials interviewed for this story say an enormous amount of planning occurred throughout 2020 to reconfigure their sports programs. The NCAA issued and continues to update “return-to-sport” guidelines that spell out testing protocols, physical distancing requirements and quarantine policies, and divisions and conferences handed down decisions about what games could be played.

At Denison, a decision was made early on to partner with Ohio State University to develop a robust testing strategy. Physical spaces were reconfigured, disinfection protocols were established and the decision was made to move as many activities as possible outdoors.

“We were leaning into the art of what was possible,” says General Counsel Alexandra Schimmer. “You’re taking apart a massive enterprise and putting it back together in a different way.”

While many students returned to the university in the fall, sports for that season—cross country, field hockey, football, golf, soccer and volleyball—didn’t happen. Practices in small groups and internal scrimmages took place alongside virtual workouts, and team culture and community service activities allowed a sense of togetherness to continue.

By the time late summer and fall rolled around, athletic directors were having discussions with their conferences about what winter sports would look like. Ohio Wesleyan Athletics Director Doug Zipp remembers the day in September that the North Coast Athletic Conference made the difficult decision to cancel winter sports. It then became an institutional decision whether to let teams schedule games on their own. Ohio Wesleyan decided to proceed with all its winter sports.

“But it’s going to look very different,” Zipp says. “No spectators. Benches spaced out (so basketball players are) 6 feet apart. Individual chairs. Players on the bench wearing masks. Go play in an empty gym, but the silver lining is students get to compete against somebody now.”

The games and meets are being played with other schools in the conference that want to play. Before Covid-19, if a team played twice in one week, it would play two different teams. Now, games are played as home-and-homes between the same two teams to create a sort of “mini bubble,” Zipp says.

Covid-19 testing is determined differently among sports. Basketball, for example, because of its close contact, is considered high-risk and so players, coaches and trainers are tested weekly.

Financial impact

Division III schools that don’t have 100,000-plus-seat football stadiums to fill don’t make a financial windfall off their sports. Rather, they offer them to enhance the student experience and provide an outlet for competition. Even so, the schools’ financial livelihoods are tied to the student body, including those who want to play sports, says Dawn Stewart, Otterbein’s vice president for student affairs and director of athletics. Without sports, the school would run the risk of losing students.

Otterbein Athletics Director Dawn Stewart

“We wanted to try to find a way to implement the athletic experience safely so our student athletes were engaged, so they had an outlet beyond academics and beyond a virtual academic platform,” she says. “The NCAA supported all membership schools in this pursuit by providing strict guidelines to safely manage sports programs.”

Nan Carney-DeBord, director of athletics at Denison, says holding sporting events means extra costs for schools for testing and disinfecting, but the university is happy to do it because sports are an important part of the educational experience.

“(Division III) student athletes are as fierce (competitors) as pro athletes or Olympic athletes,” she says. “What sets Division III apart are the relationships. (Student athletes) love to be with their teammates, even practicing in masks. They’ll do anything to be in a practice environment.”

Impact on students

Molly Delaney, an Ohio Wesleyan junior who plays on the women’s basketball team, says student athletes have experienced a surge in anxiety because they’re constantly worried about all the uncertainty tied to the virus. As she was preparing for a game to be held on the first Thursday in February, two people on the team tested positive for Covid-19. More testing would be necessary on Wednesday to see if the team would get the green light to play its game with Denison on that Friday and Saturday. The games were played, with Ohio Wesleyan winning both.

Having activities tied to the sport taken away from her because of the pandemic makes her appreciate the chance to play a season she hopes gets to eight games.

“(Before Covid-19), you usually would have post-season spring workouts where you’d still get to play against each other,” she says. “Not having that really made me realize how passionate I am about playing basketball, and how much it helps me mentally and physically. The team atmosphere pushes me to be a better person on and off the floor.”

Myiah Kelley is a senior at Otterbein, where she plays soccer and is an athletic training student. While soccer normally is a fall sport, this year it’s been moved to the spring, and she has her fingers crossed that the team will be able to play.

“I tried to have hope that we would have a season in the spring after fall got canceled,” she says. “I have friends who play soccer in different divisions, and they just completely cancelled. The fact that Otterbein put out a statement that there was a chance in the spring gave me hope (and the incentive) to stay fit and work hard.”

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.