Although the Ivy League was decried as hasty in shutting down spring competition, it also led the way this semester when it canceled all fall sports seasons and practices. Meanwhile, the NCAA vacillated, with some conferences choosing to pursue a fall football season and others canceling fall sports altogether.
With the end of the fall season approaching, both the Ivy League and the NCAA will have to review issues of winter and spring competitions, coach-athlete interactions, and training plans. While the NCAA is working to make accommodations for athletes during this time, the Ivy League remains steadfast in its commitment to pre-coronavirus policies.
Though present before the coronavirus, the differences between the two conferences are becoming even clearer as both the Ivy League and the NCAA formulate their respective COVID-19 rules and response plans for athletes.
College athletes yield certain privileges when they attend an Ivy League institution. Although Ancient Eight athletes enjoy access to elite alumni networks and education, they do not receive athletic scholarships. In addition, the opportunity to enjoy a redshirt year is slim, as the Ivy League prohibits graduate students from competing in varsity athletics.
Disparities between NCAA and Ivy league regulations have become particularly important for winter sports, especially for teams that perform well at a national level, such as Columbia fencing. The fencing team’s success is an anomaly at the University, where many teams languish at the bottom of Ancient Eight standings, let alone national ones.
Though head coach Michael Aufrichtig’s team excels in the NCAA competition, it is still subject to the constraints of the Ivy League’s regulations. For Aufrichtig, one drawback is that non-Ivies are allowed to travel with more than 15 fencers. Columbia cannot.
Despite these limitations, the Ivy League’s proactive response to the pandemic has put Aufrichtig’s mind at ease.
“I feel that I’m part of a group, part of a league, that definitely has the students’ safety as their number one priority, and that’s a good thing,” Aufrichtig said after Columbia decided not to bring students back to campus for the fall, and to postpone all in-person sports until at least January.
According to Aufrichtig, the decision to cancel in-person practices and competitions was not taken lightly. In late summer, athletic staff began to receive training in new campus policies and phased-training programs. Aufrichtig explained that time and money invested in this program could have been directed elsewhere if the University wasn’t hoping to make some on-campus training possible for athletes.
Instead of attending practices on campus, athletes’ routines now involve weekly NCAA compliance training, where the current situation—training in a pandemic—is treated as “fluid.”
“We’ll hear about a rule on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, it’s changed. We’ll hear ‘no’ on Wednesday and ‘yes’ on Thursday, because, as things are changing, the rules are changing,” Aufrichtig said.
One benefit to such compliance meetings is the ability to observe allocations that the NCAA makes as its athletes navigate the pandemic. Previously, student-athletes who took voluntary leaves of absence were not permitted to be a part of team meetings. Now, the NCAA is allowing these athletes to maintain contact with their coaches and teams, though they still will be barred from “chalk talk,” or competition-related discussions.
Among their various initiatives taken in light of the pandemic, the NCAA restored a year of eligibility for athletes whose seasons were lost due to COVID-19. Schools with robust scholarship programs for their athletes faced the issue of bankrolling an unforeseen additional year of scholarships while dealing with declining revenues. This would not have posed the same hardship for the Ivy League, which does not offer athletic scholarships, had it chosen to offer an extra year of eligibility to athletes.
Unlike the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision, whose football programs bring in millions of dollars each year, the most noteworthy revenue stream for Columbia Athletics is Giving Day. Last year’s Giving Day generated nearly $3 million for Athletics. Meanwhile, Ohio State (a national rival of the Lions’ fencing team), raked in $64 million in ticket sales alone during the 2019-2020 fiscal year, about 83 percent of which came from football.
The Ivy League has already lost many teams. In June, Brown University cut 11 of its varsity sports, followed the next month by Dartmouth College’s decision to eliminate five teams. While performance and an overconcentration of recruited athletes on campus also contributed to these decisions, both universities cited financial downturns caused by the pandemic as a leading factor.
There was little uniformity across the country as various conferences made decisions about the fall season. All 10 of the NCAA’s top-tier football conferences eventually chose to play, though they came to various conclusions about spectator participation. In an attempt to salvage other fall sports, the NCAA board of directors also approved a plan to conduct fall championships for sports like soccer, volleyball, and cross country in the spring.
While the administration continues to work at a national level to accommodate student-athlete needs, the Ivy League remains stringent in its policies about graduate student participation. A Columbia athlete who wishes to use their additional year of eligibility must transfer to a school in another conference in order to compete. This rule has cost Ivy League institutions impressive players, such as former men’s basketball player Mike Smith, CC ’20, who transferred to the University of Michigan to play out his final year of eligibility.
Many athletes were forced to decide whether they wanted to take a year off to retain their positions with the Lions, continue with their studies without sports, or transfer in order to keep competing. These restrictions already pose challenges to athletes, and with fall sports cancellations, the choice has become even more difficult.
Senior sabrist Andrew Doddo said that the Ivy League’s geographic location could have something to do with its choice to cancel all fall athletics.
“All the Ivy League schools are in the Northeast; we move a little differently,” he said. “We’re not in the middle of Georgia and can kind of figure out a way to keep fencing socially distant. We’re in a hot spot.”
Athletes were encouraged to train at private clubs if possible. Junior Natalie Minarik, whose club practices on Long Island, said she’s “in a good training position right now,” but is unsure about future training at school. For the foreseeable future, according to Minarik, cramming 40 fencers into Columbia’s fencing room does not seem like a distinct possibility.
“The NCAA’s a little more lenient and tries to accommodate people and get them back into their sport, but at this point, I am not expecting things to turn around very quickly. But I’m hopeful. I try to stay optimistic about it all,” Minarik continued.
The Ivy League has stated that it will not entertain the idea of any sports competition before Jan. 1. In normal years, the fencing team would have already competed in four meets by then. For universities that are participating in sports this fall, their teams will have spent the entirety of this semester practicing, putting the Lions at a disadvantage.
On Tuesday, Oct. 13, the Division I Council voted to grant student-athletes who play winter sports an additional year of eligibility, regardless of whether they play this season. Initially, everyone’s eyes turned to basketball, the most lucrative sport on the list, but this option could also be appealing for fencers seeking one more national title. However, if they choose to pursue this avenue, they won’t be on the NCAA podium in Columbia blue.