Many athletic conferences put on a good face this fall when they took a bullet to their budgets and canceled fall competitions.
The NCAA resentfully followed suit, first canceling Division III, and then finally calling off money-making sports when grim COVID-19 data presented no other alternatives.
Now, however, despite COVID cases surging nationwide, colleges, the public, and the athletes themselves can’t resist any longer: sports are back, often in front of crowds. Recent data revealed 6,629 cases among athletes and staff at major universities, a low-ball figure because many universities refused to reveal their data.
A December 12th New York Times article painted a dire picture of college athletes during the pandemic. Shuttled from place to place to compete where government regulations would allow, college athletes were portrayed as an unpaid workforce, forced to gratify the larger U.S. sports and entertainment industries at great personal risk. Exhausted, and now likely infected with COVID, college athletes like me were portrayed as victims of the pandemic. They should at least be reimbursed for their efforts, the article concluded.
It is easy to point fingers. It could be the public’s fault, whose hunger for entertainment may have prematurely pushed college sports back to games. Or, one could blame the sports industry, which chose profit rather than the athletes’ (and public’s) well-being.
I agree that the systemic failures of college sports leave many athletes injured from training at a professional level and ill-equipped for a career beyond athletics.
But as an NCAA athlete, I think we ourselves need to take a step back and evaluate our consciences about our spring seasons.
I can’t help but admit that my teammates and I would have given almost anything for an opportunity to compete last fall. I know our sentiments were shared by athletes around the country. The University of Oregon women’s basketball team adopted the motto of “unfinished business” after their season was cut short, and this resonates with many athletes. We all feel like we have unfinished business. We have goals to accomplish, pandemic or not.
I think our stubbornness to give up the season last fall, and the one looming on the horizon, reveals several truths for college athletes, each harder and more necessary to wrestle with than the last. Does pursuing our dreams as athletes come at a bigger cost? Is there something wrong with how we approach our college athletic careers? Are we training for one victory, or for a lifetime of success?
First, I would ask athletes like myself to fundamentally understand our goals. The coronavirus, perhaps more than anything, has shown us what happens when our goals are narrowly defined and inward-looking. The common goal that we have as teams needs to radiate a sense of unity into our communities. If our goals are just about ourselves, we’ve missed the whole point of sports.
Our goals need to encompass more than the greatest accomplishments we could reach this season, or next season, or even over our entire college careers. Of course, I don’t mean that those concrete goals don’t matter (I think we need to be ambitious about what we can accomplish as athletes), but at the same time, we need to place those goals in the wider context of our lives. We need to stop training and playing for merely short-term successes, which will leave us injured, unprepared for life after sports, and feeling strangely empty.
Approaching our goals with a long-term perspective must entail real, practical changes. Perspective should make us consider if we treat our bodies like machines, using them to win the game, or if we take care of our mental and physical health with the future in mind. Perspective should make us consider whether our social media platforms are benefiting society and our peers. It should cause us to evaluate how we contribute to a positive and empowering team dynamic. This sense of perspective, always in light of the common good, needs to color every aspect of our athletic careers.
For college athletes like me, who can’t control if our sports will compete this spring, what I’m saying doesn’t have much to do with the NCAA’s judgment call. Our situation should reveal something much deeper: are we training with an all-or-nothing mindset? Are we taking the common good of our communities into consideration?
Whether or not the NCAA goes ahead with spring sports, the question of the common good remains. The pandemic has brought that fact into stunning focus.
About the Author
Anna Wilgenbusch is a student-athlete at the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas. She uses her dual passions for running and journalism to encourage student-athletes to integrate into their wider campus communities. Anna is an NCAA DIII cross-country All-American and was the USCAA individual national cross-country champion in 2019. Anna also competes in long-distance track and holds her university’s 5k school record. When not running, studying, or writing for her campus paper and Trey Athletes, Anna can most likely be found playing violin or baking. She calls St. Paul, MN her home.