Unseen pandemic challenges of student athletes | The Triangle
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Unseen pandemic challenges of student athletes

Imagine training 1,000 hours for the biggest race of your athletic career. You wake up at 5 a.m. daily, practice twice a day and review film. Now imagine that race being cancelled, leaving you feeling like your training was for nothing. On top of that, imagine being a college senior and having to face the end of your collegiate career while unable to compete in your final season. 

In the past year, neither collegiate nor National Collegiate Athletic Association athletes were immune to the COVID-19 pandemic. The NCAA is, in its own words, “a member-led organization dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes.” In reality, however, it is essentially the governing body for all collegiate athletics, creating and enforcing protocol. 

In 2020, the NCAA was faced with unprecedented decisions. Last year, March Madness (men’s basketball), 2020 NCAA Rowing Championships (women’s rowing), and 2020 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships were cancelled. Training became incredibly difficult and isolating during this time, especially since there was no end in sight. Coming into the 2020-21 athletic year, athletes were hopeful to compete once again.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, Drexel University Athletics, had a tremendous amount of success, a testament to the athletes who really stepped up. With CAA conference championships in men’s basketball, women’s basketball, men’s lacrosse and softball, and strong team finishes in women’s lacrosse and women’s rowing, Drexel athletes accomplished a great deal. However, that doesn’t it was easy.

According to 19-year-old Rita Keefer, a first-year student on Drexel’s Women’s Rowing Team, being a student athlete was not at all what she expected.  

Keefer, a California native and Culinary Arts major, has been rowing for six years and is used to working hard. Balancing school work and athletic commitments was no challenge, as she has been doing that for years; the toughest part of being a student athlete over the last year was the unusual and unexpected required sacrifices. 

“You know, athletes always have a bigger commitment than other students, and we are required to give a lot,” Keefer said. “But this year, we weren’t given so many of the resources we expected to have. I thought we would be able to lift weights, get special training days, have access to the cool study rooms in the DAC, but we had none of that.”

Keefer also explained that the overall lack of structure and consistency due to the pandemic made transitioning to college-level athletics incredibly difficult.

“We had no idea when practice was,” Keefer explained. “Times and locations changed daily because we had to wait for COVID test results.”  

Keefer also noted that, like other Drexel students, athletes also had to sacrifice their social lives,—with even more restrictions than the average Dragon.

“We couldn’t go out, or make friends off the team. We had to give up our entire life to remain in our pods,” Keefer continued. 

NCAA athletes had to follow strict rules this past year. Over the months, guidelines continued to change, such as how many people were in your pod and how often you had to be COVID tested. However, one rule remained the same: Stay in your pods. 

This meant no study groups, no parties, no dinners, no visiting home and no meeting friends. The consequences of breaking this rule were dire, not only for the individual but also the entire team and athletics department.

Keefer recalled one particular instance when these rules weren’t followed: “Once, there was a party that a lot of people went to. There were so many positive [COVID] cases after that the athletic department threatened to shut down all sports if it happened again.” 

Not only was there immense pressure to do well athletically, but athletes like Keefer felt anxiety at the possibility that they could be the ones to shut down all athletics. 

Many athletes were more than willing to make these sacrifices, like Giavanna Hunt, a second-year materials science and engineering major on the Drexel Women’s Rowing Team. 

“I distinctly remember looking at my calendar on May 17, 2020 and thinking ‘we should be competing at CAAs right now,’” Hunt said. “That feeling of missing out is what ran through my head when life, a workout, or school got too hard.” 

Hunt’s motivation was infectious, and she helped lead the First Varsity Eight to a second place finish at the Collegiate Athletics Association 2021 Rowing Championship. 

When confronted with requests to allow athletes whose seasons were cancelled, the NCAA issued this blanket response via the official NCAA website: “Institutions may self-apply a one-year extension of eligibility for fall and/or winter sport student-athletes who are unable to compete, elect not to compete or who qualify for a season-of- competition waiver due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

While the attempt at supporting athletes is there, it just is not feasible for all students, especially seniors, to enroll for another year. Therefore, this proposed solution is not suitable for everyone.

This is not the first time the NCAA has failed to properly represent and compensate its athletes. Recently, on April 28, the NCAA took a major step towards giving athletes the better compensation. The Board of Governors, the NCAA’s highest governing body and those in charge of creating new policies, released an announcement through the official website regarding beginning the process of allowing “student-athletes to receive compensation for third-party endorsements both related to and separate from athletics.”   

Komal Kaur, a 19-year-old Drexel freshman and English major, has a few classmates that are student athletes. 

“I’ve only heard about the immense amount of work and training involved that pushes students to the edge and involves a lot of physical exercise that is mentally exhausting,” Kaur said. “And the favoritism can be frustrating when school is supposed to be an academic setting.” 

Kaur’s sentiments are shared by many. It’s likely that many regular students don’t recognize what actually goes into college athletics, and this is through no fault of the students themselves. 

Maybe some individuals view the 2020-21 season as a waste. However, Drexel student athletes like Keefer and Hunt made the most of it and rose to the challenge.