Cancellation of Spring Season Stirs Controversy Amongst Student-Athletes


Madison Olsen

Fred Shults Field is empty of students during a day without practice.

With the continued spread of COVID-19 and the discovery of a more contagious variant in Northeast Ohio, the College made the call to cancel athletic competition for the spring season. This decision was made in consultation with local health officials at Lorain County Public Health and medical experts at Mercy Allen Hospital. 

“I can appreciate how disappointing this decision is,” President Carmen Twillie Ambar wrote in a Jan. 21 statement on the GoYeo website. “This is the second spring season that the pandemic has impacted dramatically. But as we face the new, more contagious strains of the novel coronavirus, it is critical that we maintain our commitment to safety. It is my fervent hope and expectation that with the distribution of the vaccine and improved testing methods, we will be able to resume sports safely in 2021.”

Although the season is canceled, varsity athletes will have the opportunity to hold COVID-safe modified practices and train with their teams just as they did during the fall semester. In an email to the Review, Delta Lodge Director of Athletics and Physical Education Natalie Winkelfoos emphasized that the College is committed to supporting student-athletes’ physical and mental health, especially with the cancelation of athletics. 

“We know how disappointing this decision is and our staff is committed to providing the best experience we can this winter/spring for our student-athletes,” Winkelfoos wrote in an email to the Review. “We will collaborate with our Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and Black Student-Athlete Group to make sure we have opportunities that can feed our competitive appetites and provide outlets for physical and emotional well-being for our entire student body. We will get through this, but we must get through it together. We can do hard things.”

The Announcement to Cancel Spring Competition

Although the decision was not unexpected, the cancelation of athletic competition has led to heartache for student-athletes and coaches as they mourn the loss of yet another season. 

Head Softball Coach Sara Schoenhoft says that her athletes responded with disappointment, but not surprise. 

“There was definitely sadness, especially for the seniors,” she wrote in an email to the Review. “There were a lot of tears on that Zoom call. Nobody was really super shocked, but we were all very sad.”

Graduating spring athletes are faced with devastating news: They played their last Oberlin College games, and they didn’t even know it at the time. College fourth-year lacrosse player Tommy Berle says that this knowledge feels like a punch to the gut. 

“When I was coming to Oberlin, and through my first two years on this team, I always expected to have four years to give to this program,” he wrote in an email to the Review. “Knowing that I’ve almost definitely played my last college lacrosse game is really sad.”

Still, Berle is thankful that the school has invested so much in testing and protecting the health and safety of Oberlin students. 

“I’m also grateful that my family and friends remain healthy — I recognize that millions of people in this country have lost a lot more than a lacrosse season,” he wrote. “Although I am sad, and although my teammates share that sentiment, I understand why the decision was made and I value the health and safety of our Oberlin community more highly than the opportunity to compete in intercollegiate competition during this pandemic.”

The Petition to Reinstate Spring Competition

Some students were not satisfied with the College’s decision. College first-year Abbie Patchen is on both the field hockey and women’s lacrosse teams and had unwavering hope for a modified season. After hearing the announcement that the spring season was canceled, Patchen and her family reached out to administrators. They felt that their concerns were dismissed, leading Patchen and her father to create a petition, Oberlin College: Let Our Voices Be Heard And Reinstate Spring 2021 Sports! The petition currently has 205 signatures. 

Patchen believes that the NCAC’s plan for reduced travel will keep student-athletes and Oberlin’s campus safe, and that the College should consider reinstating some competition. 

“Maybe it’s not possible for every spring sport to compete, but it seems clear that a blanket approach was used, despite the obvious differences across spring sports in terms of contact risk,” she said. “Tennis is a much different situation than lacrosse, and yet both were canceled.”

Patchen also believes that the realities of the pandemic might become more hopeful with a vaccine on the horizon. 

“No one knows what the situation will be like in March or April, so why take away the possibility of competition now?” she wrote. “What we all need is hope. Canceling took away a senior’s hope for a final season, months before it was even supposed to begin.”

While some athletes believe Patchen’s petition is a great way for student-athletes to be heard, others are weary of the idea of reinstating spring sports. Berle says he has heard of the petition but thought it was shortsighted. 

“President Ambar knows we want to play, but the fact is we pay her, and we trust her to make the hard decisions that are best for our community,” Berle wrote. “A petition is unlikely to change her mind and more importantly it doesn’t answer any of the challenges that sponsoring spring sports would bring.”

Before creating her petition, Patchen researched information provided by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Ohio Department of Health. According to Patchen, these resources show that there are many ways to conduct sports safely because outdoor activities are considered low-risk. 

Patchen envisions a way for competitions to be held with increased testing, reduced travel, and required mask-wearing during games. However, Chief of Staff David Hertz has pointed out that even with extensive testing and more resources, Division I schools still struggled to contain COVID-19. 

“If you look at what’s going on in athletics across the country, collegiate athletics are struggling to maintain their safety and their health,” he said. “And you see what happened at [the University of] Michigan, where they had to shut down all athletics. That’s an athletic powerhouse, Division I school where they shut down for at least two weeks because of an outbreak of the UK variant B117. So we’re trying to be as careful as we can. The issue is less how our athletes are doing in terms of controlling COVID-19, but when you are competing against teams within our conference, you have to also be concerned about what’s taking place on other campuses.”

The presence of more transmissible coronavirus variants in Northeast Ohio only increases the risks associated with traveling. The Oberlin Athletics Department is familiar with the petition, but Winkelfoos is adamant that the current course of action is what is best for the safety and health of the Oberlin community. 

“We have heard of the petition,” Winkelfoos wrote. “I appreciate the passion behind the effort. But while I appreciate it, that doesn’t mean I agree with its goal. We are balancing the long-term health and safety of the entire Oberlin Community with the risks associated with conference competition. Athletics is important to everyone’s mental health. We will find ways to exercise, to compete and to enjoy the benefits of athletics within the restrictions this pandemic continues to place upon us.”

Schoenhoft says that her team looks forward to next season and already has their sights set on 2022. 

“We will keep up the intensity of our practices with our seniors’ sole focus being on helping their younger teammates.”

Berle is hoping to make the most of this final semester on campus with the great friends, professors, and experiences he has had. While he is unsure about using his extra years of eligibility, he knows that lacrosse will always hold a special place in his Oberlin experience. 

“It’s time to start training for the Alumni Game next year.”