July 15, 2020

After Ivy League’s Decision to Cancel Fall Sports, PU Coaches Helping Athletes Deal with Fallout

SPRING IN HIS STEP: Princeton University football player Collin Eaddy scores a touchdown in a game last fall. Rising senior running back Eaddy will hope to be back in action this spring after the Ivy League decided that there will be no games this fall. The league added that there will be no competition until January 1 at the earliest and that the winter and spring sports calendars will be decided at a later date with the possibility that fall sports could take place in the spring. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

When the Ivy League canceled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments on March 10 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it drew some fire for the decision.

Many thought the league had jumped the gun and some of the players slated to play in the tourney signed a petition imploring Ivy administrators to change their mind and reinstate the event.

But it turned out that the Ivies were ahead of the curve as the sports world screeched to a halt across the globe days later.

Last Wednesday, the league made another controversial decision, becoming the first Division I conference to cancel all sports competition this fall.

Once again the Ivies appear to be a trendsetter as the Patriot League followed suit on Monday and canceled all fall competition while the Big 10 and Pacific 12 have limited all games this fall to conference contests only.

In announcing their position, the Ivy presidents made it clear that reaching such a conclusion was painful.

“These decisions are extremely difficult, particularly when they impact meaningful student-athlete experiences that so many value and cherish,” said the presidents, noting that fall training will be allowed for student athletes on campus with no games before January 1 at the earliest and that the winter and spring sports calendars will be decided at a later date with the possibility that fall sports could take place in the spring.

“With the information available to us today regarding the continued spread of the virus, we simply do not believe we can create and maintain an environment for intercollegiate athletic competition that meets our requirements for safety and acceptable levels of risk, consistent with the policies that each of our schools is adopting as part of its reopening plans this fall.”

PU Fall Coaches React

While Princeton University men’s soccer head coach Jim Barlow saw the handwriting on the wall, it didn’t make things any easier when the decision came down.

“I wasn’t surprised, but it is still gut-wrenching,” said Barlow, noting that coaches were informed of the decision by Princeton Athletic Director Mollie Marcoux Samaan at 4:00 last Wednesday afternoon.

“I think when you look around and see the surge in cases and what is going on nationally, it was hard to be surprised. Even though you expected this type of decision, it still hurts.”

Tiger football head coach Bob Surace reached a similar view of the situation.

“The initial reaction was even though this is the right move, it is painful when you find out officially,” said Surace.

“You trust that the presidents are going to look out for health and safety and they are going to make the right decision. I agree with that decision.”

View of Administrators

The Princeton athletes, for their part, were informed of the decision at 5:00 via a webinar with Marcoux Samaan.

“None of this is easy and we are heartbroken for our amazing student-athletes, coaches, administrators, and fans,” said  Marcoux Samaan in a statement issued after the move by the league.

“The college athletics experience is meaningful on so many levels, not only in what is learned but the relationships that are cultivated and the community that is formed. Our teams won’t compete this fall but our teaching will not stop. We will continue to support our student-athletes with even more vigor and focus during these challenging times. We will continue to build community and develop leaders through athletics.”

In an interview on CNN last Thursday, Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris sympathized with the athletes.

“There is tremendous disappointment, of course they cherish their athletic experience and opportunities and I think there is also a lot of understanding frankly,” said Harris.

“The individuals in the Ivy League understand that we treat our student athletes like students because they are students. We operate athletics consistent with our campus policies and there is an understanding that these policies that are being put in place to protect the health and well-being of our campus community at large and our society, should also apply to our athletics community. So while we are all disappointed and disheartened, we know it is the right decision for the Ivy League.”

Supporting The Athletes

Meeting virtually with his players last Wednesday evening, Surace focused on helping get the them through this uncertain time.

“I kept it to the point of just being in this together and supporting them,” said Surace.

“It is easy to support people when you are 10-0 but your true colors come out when you are in the midst of this adversity. Even though we know it is the right decision, it doesn’t make it less painful for all of us. The players have been so inspiring the last four months, especially as we have been going through everything. We have been doing it virtually. They stepped up as leaders in every way and so to see them hurting, that is hard.”

Holding his weekly Thursday Zoom meeting, Barlow tried to answers questions and keep spirits up.

“We had a couple of our athletic fellows on the call who work in different parts of the campus,” said Barlow.

“One works in the communications office, one works as a dean of one of the residential colleges. So we had people from different parts of campus who could help and answer questions. Right now there are a ton of questions. The players were really down. Everyone was really excited to get back together, and to get back on the field. Everyone feels like we have a really good group. Like the coaches, I don’t think too many of them were surprised but they were still really, really disappointed.”

Like Barlow, Surace is helping his players plan for the best way to proceed on an individual basis in terms of potentially taking a gap year and impact on future eligibility.

“We are working through all of those things; I have some pretty good ideas for some of the guys and I think they are on board with that,” said Surace.

“It is when you get to some of the older guys, I am working with Mollie and her staff to make sure on their situations. I don’t want to give them poor advice, that is the worst thing I can do now. Even if I am supporting and caring, if I give them poor advice, that just defeats the purpose. There are groups I am going to Zoom with by class year next week because I think I know what the best advice is. Then there are groups that I am not sure yet.”

In addition to providing advice, Surace is making himself available to his players to talk through other issues as well. 

“Knowing that we are not going to play games in the fall, some guys right now need to put on much weight with the bench press just to get this out of their system,” added Surace.

“Other guys need time off and we will give them space and work with them. The only thing I am worried about is caring for them and listening to them. I don’t need to talk Xs and Os for the next three weeks or a month and a half. I need to have my phone on, listen to them, and talk them through this time. Let’s give them the best advice possible and let’s show that we love them.”

The Tiger soccer players are in the same boat. “They turned their focus onto OK, what makes the most sense for me,” said Barlow.

“Are some guys going to try and request a gap year or defer coming for a year and how does that work? Is that going to be possible; all of those kind of issues are just starting to come to the surface.”

ON HOLD: Princeton University men’s soccer player Moulay Hamza Kanzi Belghiti, left, battles a Rider player in 2019 action. Rising junior midfielder Kanzi Belghiti and his teammates were dealt a blow last week as the Ivy League decided to cancel all sports competition this fall. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Fall Training

With the Ivy presidents giving the go-ahead to fall training, Surace and his staff will soon be formulating a plan for that option.

“At some point, it sounds like in September, we will be able to work out,” said Surace.

“We haven’t got the exact specifics of that but we are going to be able to be with them. There will be a time, probably in a month from now, where we will sit down as coaches and training staff and work through what we want to accomplish on that.”

As for the men’s soccer program, Barlow looks forward to  getting on the field with his players, but plenty of questions remain.

“We are trying to learn what it is going to look like in the fall, the plan is to be able to have in-person workouts but to phase them in over time,” said Barlow.

“I think you start with strength and conditioning and then you move towards small group instruction and then, if all is going well, eventually you can move into group training. I think it would only be for the student athletes who have been invited to be on campus at that time, the first years and juniors in the fall and then sophomore and seniors in the spring. There are all kinds of questions that have come up about the sophomores and seniors. If they are technically enrolled but not allowed to be on campus, would coaches be allowed to go train them off campus? All of those kind of questions are out there and haven’t been answered yet.”

Spring Scenarios

While the Ivy presidents indicated that games could resume on January 1 and that fall sports may be moved to the spring, Surace acknowledged those scenarios are not a given.

“If circumstances change, President Eisgruber would love to have people in the classrooms and people doing things but it has to be safe,” said Surace.

“He can’t have people acting like it was last year at this time. You can’t open it up to that because the way this spreads, you are putting way too many people at risk. Maybe 18-21-year-olds are at less risk, maybe they are not, nobody knows. Everybody is battling this; you are trying to come up with something that there is no guide for. You are using all of the wisdom, you are using all of the resources and you are just trying to do it as safe as possible. There is no perfect answer right now.”

Despite the questions, Surace is holding out hope that his team could return to the gridiron come spring.

“There are ways that it can become safe and in five and a half months we could know it is this safe,” said Surace, noting that the Ivy football team have been holding spring practice sessions for years.

“If it is not safe, it is really hard to say to college age athletes that you can advocate for that when you have told them how much you care about them. You promise their families that you are going to support them and you are going to treat them like your own kids. If you make a decision that is selfish right now, you show colors that are just poor, you show ignorance, you show selfishness. It is hard to be in sports and be selfish.”

Barlow, for his part, sees issues even if his squad can get some game action this spring.

“That is a really hard one; as of now, the NCAA is saying that the national tournament is taking place in the fall so that means the traditional season is in the fall and if you want to be part of it, that is when you play,” said Barlow, noting that Ivy spring season would likely be limited to league games only.

“The spring would be the non-traditional season which would be governed by nontraditional rules, limiting to us a very small number of games. It is possible that if things improve and everyone is allowed back on campus and they decide they want to have more games in the spring, they could appeal to the NCAA to say hey we didn’t play in the fall so can we play more games in the spring. Those things are all just being discussed, I don’t know how realistic it is. I don’t know if our guys would want to use a year of eligibility on seven games.”

New Perspective

When the games do resume, Barlow believes his players will bring a new perspective to the pitch.

“I do think for a lot of guys, this has forced them to figure out what is really important and to be really grateful for the things they have,” said Barlow.

“I think some realizations that have come from this is you realize that some of the things that you thought were important were so trivial in the grand scheme of things. The emphasis now is to look forward to the day we can get back on the field and to just really cherish the moment and just get as much out of it as you can and to not sweat the stuff that is not important.”

In Surace’s view, the athletes and coaches need to focus on the bigger picture.

“As much as losing football pains me, there is perspective,” said Surace.

“I talk to the team about this. You pick up a local paper right now, there is an article every day on a small business owner who has worked their tail off to start their company or start their restaurant and that company or restaurant is in dire straits right now. There is not a day that goes by that your don’t read about a tragedy because of this. I hope that we can take a step back from the emotion of the pain we have now and look at the big picture. This is really hard on everybody.”