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Northwestern winter sport athletes react to postponement of fall sports, look ahead to their own seasons

With the Big Ten pulling the plug on fall sports, winter athletes will cautiously await news on the fate of the seasons.

Caleb Friedman, 2018

Ever since the Big Ten’s postponement of fall sports on August 11, reactions from several different groups, particularly from those involved with college football, have run the gamut.

A number of players, including some Northwestern athletes, took to Twitter supporting the #WeWantToPlay movement. Some Big Ten football parents, led by Ohio State defensive back Shaun Wade’s father Randy, traveled to conference headquarters in Rosemont, Illinois, to demand a meeting with commissioner Kevin Warren. Most recently, news broke that eight players on the Nebraska football team filed a lawsuit the Big Ten, which is even more notable given the school’s public flirtation with the idea of attempting to play a season this fall despite the B1G’s postponement.

One group that has yet to be as vocal is the winter sport athletes. While there has always been a better chance for their seasons to avoid postponement because they simply have more time for the situation and technologies to improve, fall sports not being played has winter athletes more concerned about their own prospects.

“They haven’t said anything about it,” said a Northwestern winter sport student-athlete. “I see it getting postponed. Nothing seems to be getting better. You can’t really social distance in many sports.”

“I honestly have been just kind of preparing for the worst,” said another NU winter athlete. “I don’t want to get my hopes up. I’m still going to prepare and work out like we’re playing, whether we don’t have fans or whatever. But I would say I’m definitely a bit concerned for our season.”

While many athletes said they would be disappointed and upset to see their seasons canceled or postponed, as they were when they heard the news about fall sports, they understood the decision that was made for the fall sports and believe a lot of those student athletes think the same.

“Jim Phillips always wants what’s best for us, and we know he’s going to do that, so we’ve just got to have a lot of faith in him,” one athlete said. “I haven’t heard of them being annoyed about the people who made the decision. They seem to be more upset about the situation in general with the coronavirus, that this is still going on.”

“It’s unfortunate, but at the end of the day, you can’t completely disagree with it because we just don’t know enough,” another winter athlete told Inside NU. “I think being at school and seeing all the protocols that were happening and the contact tracing, it really puts into perspective how a season would really be managed and how difficult that would be, so I think we’re trying to just keep that perspective in mind.”

No matter what decision is ultimately made concerning the winter sports season — which the NCAA is doing everything it can to save — the Big Ten must be transparent in its communication with athletic departments, which in turn must communicate effectively with student athletes and their families. Abruptly canceling the season after announcing a flexible schedule six days earlier shouldn’t be the way things are done the next time around. Having to suspend the season after a couple games doesn’t sound too desirable either.

Watching the fall situation unfold was all too familiar for basketball players who faced a sudden cancelation in March, leading Northwestern’s women’s team to miss out on its likely NCAA tournament berth.

“I’d rather not start the season at all than start just for it to get cut short again,” one player on the team said. “That was devastating, and I wouldn’t want to go through that again.”

“I would rather them just make a decision,” another athlete said. “Honestly, I think that was a problem for the fall sports as well, just the back and forth and poor communication that was happening. That really left people more confused and upset than anything. A lot of the fall athletes are finding stuff out on Twitter, and I think that’s really unfair.”

Vital communication includes that for procedures that need to be put in place should sports be played amidst the pandemic.

“I think we need third party testing, so every school can be held accountable and be honest, no matter what,” said the source. “I think at some schools, there’s a possibility they could prioritize the wrong things, and that could be an issue. The constant testing and the contact tracing being the first priority would help.”

Of course, while both postponement or an abruptly ended season would be seen as negatives, nothing would be worse cutting teams. This worry was came to fruition when Stanford — a school often linked to Northwestern due to its similar high academic standing amongst NCAA Division I teams — announced it would discontinue 11 varsity sports.

According to a site that has been tracking 2020 NCAA program cancellations, seven men’s and seven women’s swim and dive teams have been canceled across the NCAA, eight of which were Division I programs. Most notable of those to cut the sport is Iowa, who is not only a conference rival of Northwestern but host of the 2020-21 Men’s Swim & Dive NCAA Championship. The school is now in a dispute with the NCAA over whether it will still host the event.

While one source on the Northwestern swim and dive team said the developments at Iowa and Stanford have concerned them, they ultimately feel NU’s program is relatively safe.

“I feel like it’s a little safer at a school like Northwestern compared to a school like Iowa,” said the source. “[Iowa relies] heavily on football to generate a lot of money, as does Northwestern. However, [Northwestern has] a lot of money come through alumni donations, and that probably sets us aside from a lot of other big schools. They’re unable to fund programs like swimming because football isn’t playing this fall, whereas we’re sort of on the safe side.”

It’s tough to know the exact breakdown of NU’s athletic department revenue or if alumni donations like the kind mentioned above help fund programs that otherwise wouldn’t exist, in part because the school is private. The Big Ten paid out each of its 12 longest-standing members $54 million in the 2017-18 fiscal year, and data from the US Department of Education’s Equity in Athletics Data Analysis gives a picture of where revenue is generated and how it is spent. According to this data, the department brought in a total of $111 million, with the football program generating $63 million during fiscal year 2018-19.

Some may point to the difference in schools’ financial positions to imply whether programs at certain institutions will be cut or not. But as has been well publicized, schools’ endowments are hardly checking accounts. Iowa, with an endowment of $1.58 billion, cut four programs. However, Stanford’s endowment is an impressive $27.7 million, and that did not stop the Cardinal from cutting programs. In many places, athletics is expected to be self-sustaining. Northwestern’s website lists the school’s endowment at $10.8 billion as of August 2019.

Despite the fair concern winter athletes face with big decisions looming on the horizon, more important currently is dealing with the mental and emotional pain the fall athletes are feeling with a significant chunk of their lives — sports — not available to them this season.

“I’ve talked to volleyball, football and some women’s soccer players the most,” said one winter athlete. “Not a full conversation, just telling them that I’m sorry and that I hate to see this.”

“It’s heartbreaking because this is what you’re here for,” said another source, “At Northwestern, your student-athletes are here for the academic portion as well, but at the end of the day, you’re a college athlete. You came here to play your sport and perform at the highest level.”

Hopefully, the country will be in a better situation concerning spread of the novel coronavirus later this year, and schools might have a better grasp of how to properly run a sports season during a pandemic. But as the absence of all Big Ten sports in both the spring and now the fall have shown us, nothing is guaranteed, creating uneasy times for young, collegiate athletes.

“It’s just a terrible situation to be in, especially for the seniors,” said one winter athlete. “You never could have predicted this, and it really makes you put into perspective that you can’t take the sport you love for granted, because the air does come out of the ball at some point, and for a lot of us it’s happening a lot sooner than expected.”