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What Andover Can Learn from the Ivy League’s Mistakes

Like so many institutions, Andover is wrestling with finding an effective way to safely maintain its traditions of athletic excellence. When it comes to reevaluating its plans for safe competition during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Ivy League is no exception. However, the Ivy League’s decision to cancel spring sports has caused turmoil among its athletes and alumni. While Andover often looks to the Ivy League for guidance, we should not approach athletics during the pandemic the way the Ivy League has. 

Throughout its history, the Ivy League has boasted an “unrivaled experience” shared by eight colleges, all competing at the Division 1 level in one of the nation’s most storied athletic conferences. Fielding approximately 8,000 student-athletes across 33 sports, the Ivy League considers itself “the most diverse intercollegiate conference in the country,” according to the Ivy League’s website. While they have not enjoyed the commercial success of their Southeastern Conference or Big Ten counterparts, Ivy League matchups attract tens of thousands of viewers each year. According to a figure from a February 2020 “Columbia Spectator” article, even without this financial success, the average endowment at an Ivy is around $17 billion. Clearly, money is not an issue. 

Still, neither their resources nor overwhelming support from alumni, athletes, and coaches seem to be factoring into a plan for competitive play this spring. According to the Ivy League’s plan as of February 18, 2021, there will be no competitive play until the public health crisis seems manageable. The Ivy League would like to see cases drop before its colleges feel comfortable hosting large gatherings. However, there is some ambiguity here. To my knowledge, the Ivy League has not publicly committed to any firm metric regarding cases.

A recent “The Wall Street Journal” article by Laine Higgins highlighted this hesitation to facilitate interscholastic play, focusing on the frustration it has caused people affiliated with the Ivy League, especially alumni. Among them was billionaire Yale University alum Joe Tsai, who went as far as to propose a “bubble” he would fund for the sole purpose of Ivy League lacrosse. While this offer was rejected, Ivy League presidents have stood their ground even as emails and letters pour in from influential alumni and former players. The Ivy League’s “unique eligibility requirements” make matters worse, forcing last year’s Senior Class to compete as graduate students or not at all, while current seniors must decide between a lacrosse season or an Ivy League diploma. 

If the Ivy League does see the Covid-19 pandemic “improve sufficiently,” according to their plan, any competition will be “late, limited, and local”, Higgins wrote. This decision has not gone over well with the Ivy League’s athletes. Of Ivy League rosters impacted the most by the pandemic, the Yale Bulldogs men’s lacrosse team has been decimated. Since their National Championship victory in 2018, their No. 3 National Collegiate Athletic Association ranking in 2019, and their promising pre-season in 2020, Yale’s roster of 48 has been reduced to a measly eight players, the rest either transferring, deferring, or quitting altogether, Higgins stated. Considering the possibility of competition, Yale will not be able to field a team. As athletes at other Ivies transfer, the Ivy League has not revised its statement, and has eliminated any possibility of Ivy League championships this spring. For these teams, the future is uncertain. Will players return? Will alumni continue to support their schools? Without players in sufficient numbers, will Yale lacrosse be able to hold on to the magic that propelled them to their recent successes?

This unwillingness to resume competition is not new. The Ivy League canceled fall sports in July of 2020 and its winter season before Thanksgiving. Without the promise of a traditional season, it seems the Ivy League has turned away from the possibility of a revised one, addressing the pandemic as an insurmountable obstacle rather than a logistical complication. This, of course, has enraged alumni and student-athletes, who see other leagues and teams competing with some changes, but with the same passion. At the professional level, the National Basketball Association (NBA) was able to maintain a nearly impenetrable bubble in Orlando, Fla., Summer 2020 through a strict initial quarantine, regular Covid-19 testing, and a no-visitation, restricted travel policy for all its players. Yes, the NBA is a major corporation with capabilities and resources that reflect their standing, but Andover’s incredible endowment can meet our school’s mission. Those of us who have been remote since November have seen our public and day school counterparts compete with few issues. And, as Higgins noted, viral transmission is more likely to happen in the stands than on the field.

While Andover administrators often look to the Ivy League for guidance and example, I think this is an instance where we can learn from the Ivy League’s missteps. Andover does not compete on the national stage, sign television deals, or attract thousands of prospective student-athletes, but our school is old, well-respected, and involved in the most historic secondary school rivalry in America (vs. Phillips Exeter Academy, 1878-present). What I believe to be especially relevant, however, is the Ivy League’s and our Athletics Department’s shared philosophies. As a trip to the Ivy League’s website will tell you, the Ivy League prides itself on its commitment to diversity, opportunity, and the strong moral character of its athletes. Similarly, in accordance with Andover’s dedication to “knowledge and goodness”, as described in our 1778 Constitution, our athletics department wishes to “contribute to the development of the whole child” through exercise and competition. As of right now, Andover’s plan for competition during the spring is unclear. It has allowed for try-outs and regular team practices, but it has “yet to determine if we will be able to compete in spring interscholastic competition,” as stated in an update from our administration.

Nothing since March 2020 has been easy. But, sometimes it seems like our school’s leadership is taking the easy way out, drawing the hard line instead of doing the hard work, especially regarding sports. Andover’s reputation is deeply rooted in a devotion to innovation. Why can’t we harness that creativity here, now? Our athletes, our coaches, and our student body have shown their flexibility in an ever changing situation. Regardless of one’s athletic interest, everyone wants a slice of normal life. As we’ve seen, safe competition is possible as long as we are able to accept that it will be different. Coordinating a spring season while following all guidelines will be difficult, but let’s not make the Ivy League’s juvenile excuse of “If I can’t have it all, I don’t want it.”

While I am not in the position to draw up a specific plan, I hope to start a conversation among The Phillipian readership who can. I can only assume that Athletic Director Lisa Joel, our coaches, and our athletes, myself included, wish for nothing more than to take the field for the Big Blue. Let Andover be the example for the safe, fun way to compete. Let us uphold our values of knowledge and goodness. Let us play.