Amid pandemic, student-athletes endure the disappointment of a lost season

For college athletes at VCU and across the country, the games, matches and tournaments are abruptly over — some before they even started.

A portion of a baseball diamond.
Stadiums, ballparks and arenas around the country are now empty as social life drastically decreases during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Getty Images)

Alston Newsom and the rest of the Virginia Commonwealth University golf team were in Florida in mid-March, headed to Orlando for a tournament, when their coach, Matt Ball, took a phone call from the university and found out the tournament had been canceled because of concern over COVID-19, the novel coronavirus. 

Newsom later learned that his and every other U.S. student-athlete’s season was canceled. The NCAA determined it was unsafe to play competitive sports. 

“This decision is based on the evolving COVID-19 public health threat, our ability to ensure the events do not contribute to spread of the pandemic, and the impracticality of hosting such events at any time during this academic year given ongoing decisions by other entities,” according to the NCAA.

Newsom, who is studying finance in the School of Business, understands why the decision was made, but as a senior he has no idea if he will be able to play college golf again. The NCAA has said spring athletes will be issued another season of eligibility, but seniors such as Newsom must determine if they want to return for another year of college to play spring sports. 

“Right now, I would probably take the route of getting a job,” he said.

A student golfer.
Though the NCAA says spring athletes will be issued another season of eligibility, seniors like golfer Alston Newsom must determine if they want to return for another year of college to play spring sports. (Photo courtesy of VCU Athletics)

Keriann McTavish, a senior on VCU’s lacrosse team who is majoring in advertising strategy in the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said she could not believe the entire season was canceled. 

“We were all pretty upset,” McTavish said of her team’s reaction to the announcement. “We didn’t expect our season to end. We had so much more to give.”

The situation threw her plans into turmoil. McTavish only needs six more credits to graduate after this semester, and she plans to graduate in December. Now she is not sure what to do. Instead, she is focused on figuring out where to live and how her classes transfer to online learning. Her family lives in Maryland, and McTavish is talking to her mother about returning home for the rest of the semester.

“She’s worried I will get stuck here,” McTavish said. “It’s better to be with family in case of an emergency.”

McTavish lives with a couple of her teammates off campus, but has not seen most of them since Gov. Ralph Northam ordered social distancing. Her coach recently organized a video conference call with the team.

“The call was good, but it makes me miss everyone,” McTavish said. 

A lacrosse player.
Keriann McTavish, a senior on VCU’s lacrosse team, said the abrupt cancelation of the season came as a jolt. "We had so much more to give,” she said. (Photo courtesy of VCU Athletics)

Getting support 

VCU student-athletes say they have been given a huge amount of support during the crisis and are thankful. They have been in constant communication with their coaches, and the athletic department has updated them with emails. 

“The support we have been getting is amazing,” McTavish said. “It shows you how much support student-athletes have.” 

Ed McLaughlin, vice president and director of athletics, said the health and well-being of the student-athletes has always been a top priority and stressed that the department is working to provide everyone with the necessary services.

"Canceling our spring season did not come without heartache for our student-athletes, coaches and staff, but safety has to be our main priority,” McLaughlin said. “We will continue to provide our student-athletes with all of the resources they need during this unique, challenging time in their academic careers. We feel thankful to have such excellent partners across our campus community to help our student-athletes reach their goals." 

A baseball pitcher.
To entertain himself, baseball pitcher Justin Sorokowski has been watching Netflix and taking walks with his girlfriend. "I’m used to having my whole life planned out,” he said. “Now I’m scratching, trying to find things to do.” (Photo courtesy of VCU Athletics)

Justin Sorokowski is a junior at VCU and a finance major. He is also a pitcher on the baseball team and trying to figure out a new routine. He is talking with his coaches to find a way to stay in shape during the downtime. Some of his teammates are preparing for the baseball draft and need to stay in shape.

To entertain himself, Sorokowski has been watching a lot of Netflix and taking walks with his girlfriend. He is finding it hard to keep busy and occupy his time. As a student-athlete, his days generally are full.

“I’m used to having my whole life planned out,” Sorokowski said. “Now I’m scratching, trying to find things to do.”

A new normal

The support from campus administrators and coaches is helpful, McTavish and others said. Nobody knows how the pandemic will be resolved, and that is reflected in the lives of the student-athletes. They are anxious and uncertain. Their classes have moved online. Their athletic careers at VCU are on hold.

Newsom has already left campus. He has diabetes, and data has shown that people with diabetes are at greater risk of complications from the coronavirus. His parents believe he is safer at home in Chesapeake. He has had communications with some of his professors about how online learning will work, but wonders how easily his classes will transfer to an online format. His golf career at VCU might be over.

For now, he and student-athletes across the country are shifting to a new normal, and waiting to see how the situation unfolds. 

“The whole thing has not really sunk in,” he said.

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