The Day Athletics Stood Still

As a coach, I can tell you that every year brings its own set of unique memories. I have yet to meet a colleague in coaching that has gone one full year without experiencing or participating in a life-lesson moment, a team/athlete hardship, or a monumental turning point that ultimately defines that season. Sometimes those moments are great, while others are downright awful, but both have the capacity to leave a mark in a way that changes you as a leader.

empty stands
Empty stadiums and fields but lessons to learn. (Photo by Waldemar Brandt from Pexels)

The COVD-19 shutdown in college athletics shows that we are all at that moment at the exact same time. We may be different in sport, division and gender, and yet we’re experiencing the same thing.

Each year I watch March Madness, the Frozen Four, and the Women’s College World Series with a laptop, two TVs, and an iPad on hand. My heartstrings are always pulled by the dogpile at the end when the winning team moves to the next round or captures the trophy, but, even more than the winners, I am struck by the losing team.

We see the faces of the seniors. We see players on their knees, or players with foreheads on the court, or grass, or ice – and they know they are walking off for the last time when the handshake line has ended. This moment of realization and the finality of it all has the ability to make me ugly cry into my iPAD. However, on this day of cancellations, our massive student-athlete population is feeling that finality with almost no warning.

There’s a high chance that your team and staff have supported unexpected news before, such as: pregnancy, the death of a student-athlete or family member in an automobile accident, a life-threatening health diagnosis, a suicide, an addiction, and so many other gut-wrenching events. This particular situation is truly uncharted waters for all of us.

You’ve listened to critics label athletes as spoiled and/or flighty on the image and likeness issue and ongoing transfer battle. You have likely read your share of articles from naysayers covering how grossly inadequate or abusive they believe our coaching population is, from youth to college.

To those responding with, “Hey, it’s just sports” or “There are more important things to worry about,” you’ve likely never been an 18-to-21-year-old student-athlete, nor have you walked a sideline with the same passion as the countless coaches in my social feeds posting photos of their teams with heartfelt messages, as if there has been a death.

Those not seeing this as a tragedy, or willing to understand the loss through the eyes of coaches or our student-athletes, this is your choice and I invite you to stop reading. 

If you are one of those subscribing to any of the above and still believe athletes are spoiled and entitled and that coaches are awful people, I ask you to take a moment and recognize that this piece is about pure loss, disappointment, and a moment in time that can build and strengthen our resilience. It can feel earth shattering, or a little bit of both. 

With the most recent mass shutdowns in NCAA conferences, and individual schools, there is a shock setting in that we must handle with care, compassion, and love regardless of how we choose to see our coaches and athletes. Athletics is often regarded as having special treatment, but in this domino effect of closings and cancellations, there is no special treatment to be found.

Nobody is winning when it comes to such an abrupt end to tournaments, competitions, trainings, and careers for our student-athletes. If you are reading this and thinking, “what about all the students who aren’t athletes?” then I urge you to save your what-aboutisms because this piece is strictly about our broken-hearted athletes, coaches and admins.

At this very moment all around the country, our athletes are packing their bags to return to home to online classes, or being told to remain home during spring break. Others are actively learning about their cancellations, while huddled closely in team rooms, buses, hotel pool patios, and airports around the world. These athletes will return to empty campuses, which will only multiply their feeling of isolation as they make moves to return home.

While it was only hours ago that the NCAA issued a full cancellation to all winter and spring championships, this meant that, as of the time of publishing, hundreds of athletes and coaches still remained hopeful their seasons may be permitted to continue while others clung to the idea that theirs could end definitively with a true winner. No matter where you are and what your situation is, I want you to know that it doesn’t matter if you’re a coach or a player. Please hear me. You are not alone. There is a reality and sadness in this moment.

For our coaches:

The idea of closing the door on a senior class without any other option feels like a nightmare. We are solutions-based people, and our athletes rely on us for a contingency plan when things go wrong. We must remember that in this moment there is no plan B and approximately zero universities in this country included emotional training on coronavirus shutdown reactions to our athletes, coaches, and admin. As we sift through all this madness and try to make sense of this unrelenting wave of resentment and disappointment, please remember that it is not how you deliver this message to your athletes in the moment, it’s how you support them after.

An athletic generation that we often criticize for lacking the coping skills to deal with adversity has all been dealt the same hand at once with zero discrimination by sport, division, gender or color.

As your crews take down your crests and banners in empty arenas and locker rooms, and turn the lights off once more before this season’s untimely end, remember that there are few times in the history of athletics that all of us at every level have suffered in such parity, together. 

You can be the basketball coach who is having to flush the idea of her first-ever bid to the NCAA tournament, the softball coach competing over spring break who didn’t know her 8th game of the season would be her last, the ice hockey coach who believed they had at least one more opportunity to watch the team skate in their school colors, or the coach for your track athlete who should have had one more chance to beat their personal best before walking across the graduation stage.

We are all feeling what it truly means to cherish, to regret, and to bitterly watch the opportunity to see our teams compete just one more time, slip through our hands. This is a loss for all of us. Own this feeling and this outcome. You are human.

To our admins, our presidents, our provosts, and our conference commissioners:

We recognize that none of this is easy. This is probably one of the most chaotic weeks many of us will see for a long time during our tenure in athletics. We know you want us to be safe. If there was something you could have done to see us through to the last competition, you would have.

To our student-athletes:

Mourn the loss of your seasons because it is your right to do so.

Share the feelings you have with your teammates, your coach, and your families. Be open to your resentment of this loss. Know that you are not alone. One day you will look back on this and you will be able to say that you got through it. Nothing anyone can say can make this feel better in the moment, but I promise you this will heal with time.

For seniors in winter sport championships, you are now having to face and internalize that the work you did on the track, ice, pool, gym, or court will quickly be ushered into the what-if category. This might keep you wondering for years to come if that championship might have belonged to you. For spring sports just beginning, this feels like a devastating tale of a season that never was.

Ending your college career as a traditional senior is hard enough, but this was never the way anyone saw this ending.

Hard decisions have been made with outcomes that feel wildly unfair. This will hit us so much harder in 2020 because we now live in a world that offers appeals, outs, petitions and other forms of protest that at least feel as though we can fight it. 

With this pandemic, fighting was simply not an option, and the leaders who made these choices did what was best. We can only hope that the chaos of this past week – and the endless conversations and calculations that led our leaders in athletics to this conclusion – is the most serious of our challenges.

More Reading:

Saying Goodbye to the Sideline

For The Average Young Athlete, Sports Isn’t A Free Ride To College

Becky Carlson is the First D-I Women’s NCAA Rugby Coach in the United States. She is the head coach of the woman’s rugby team at Quinnipiac University. She is also the founder of the Fearless Coach. This piece was first posted on LinkedIn. Please share with this post with a coach or athlete affected by the COVD-19 shutdown. Tweet @TFCoachCarlson #BEFEARLESS

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