After President Gregory L. Fenves announced on Oct. 15 that the spring semester would remain virtual, the possibility of Emory athletes losing yet another season to the COVID-19 pandemic became all the more likely. However, on Dec. 21, Assistant Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Success and Compliance Audrey Hester notified athletes of plans to hold official practices in the spring.
Some teams, like women’s softball, started practicing as early as Feb. 9 while others, like men’s golf, plan to begin within the next week. Several teams are starting their seasons without all of their players due to rising coronavirus cases. Currently, there are positive cases in both men’s and women’s soccer teams, both swimming and diving teams, the baseball team, the men’s golf team and the men’s tennis team.
Prior to the start of practices, players had to sign the Eagle Pledge — a form similar to the Emory Student Community Compact — in which they agreed to follow Emory’s community safety guidelines. To help monitor outbreaks and track players’ status throughout the season, players must also fill out an online daily assessment of their health on the Emory Forward website.
The assessment asks student-athletes questions about symptoms and if they’ve been in a high-risk situation for COVID-19 exposure. If an athlete passes the assessment on a given day, they are allowed to practice. Athletes are also required to be tested — once a week for off-campus students and twice a week for those residing on campus.
When athletes indicate they have COVID-19 symptoms, they are contacted by an athletic trainer and are instructed to sit out team activities until they test negative. However, players who contract the coronavirus face a long road to return. After their initial isolation period, players must take a few medical tests to make sure they are not suffering or will not suffer from any long-term effects. Sophomore women’s soccer defender Peyton Robertson experienced severe symptoms from COVID-19 and now must get tested to ensure her heart is healthy, which includes an electrocardiogram, echocardiogram and blood work.
Robertson said that athletes who test positive for COVID-19 must undergo an EKG and blood work before returning to practice. Those who experience severe symptoms are also encouraged to get an echocardiogram, Robertson added. Even after players pass all of their tests, they still aren’t cleared for practice.
“They can’t throw us into practice normally,” Robertson said. “I have to do protocol, which is exercising minimally for 10 minutes one time and seeing how my symptoms are after that and then working up to attending practices.”
Despite the protocols Emory has taken to ensure player safety, many teams have seen positive cases. Senior men’s soccer captain Josh Berman noted that, although the team discussed intentions of staying safe in order to give themselves the best chance to play, teammates have contracted COVID-19.
“There’s been a few [COVID-19 cases],” Berman said. “There’s been players who have symptoms but haven’t tested positive yet, and those players on the daily assessment say that they have new or worsening symptoms.”
Even if only a few players test positive on one team, all who have been in close contact with them must also sit out. Since many athletes live with or frequently socialize with their teammates, one positive test could sideline multiple players. When 40% of the baseball team was in quarantine, they were forced to practice with limited players.
Rising cases can also lead to tension within teams, as some players may become frustrated by teammates who do not abide by the COVID-19 protocols and consequently put the entire team in jeopardy. Junior golfer Max Schwarz noted the dire consequences of breaking the Eagle Pledge.
“As a teammate, it’s probably one of the worst things you can do — when you’re putting other teammates in a position that they can’t practice, it’s a problem,” Schwarz said. “If someone’s been reckless, that’s obviously a problem, and it would be and it should be dealt with.”
Athletic Director Keiko Price stated that players will be held accountable for violations of the Eagle Pledge.
“We have explained to them that there could be a suspension if they are defiant by purposefully not abiding by the rules,” Price said in an interview with the Wheel.
Price noted that deviancy could include not being responsive to COVID-related communications, providing inaccurate or incomplete information to the sports medicine staff, or purposely not appearing for scheduled tests.
Emory Athletics has adopted a three-strike system: one violation and a player is suspended for 14 days, two violations and the player is suspended for 14 days plus 10% of the team’s games in their next season, and three violations and the player is expelled from the athletic program.
Despite the rise in cases among athletes, many players said they are comfortable returning to practice. Madison Schaefer, a senior pitcher for the softball team, is reassured by the fact that softball practices outside.
“I think everyone on the softball team felt comfortable,” Schaefer said. “We are an outdoor sport which helps a lot, and also we are each others’ social circles, so it’s not like we are going home to family members that might be older or something.”
Although teams are striving to maintain a sense of normalcy in their practices, the reality of competing during the pandemic has led to significant changes in the way teams practice. Currently, most teams are in phase one of a three-phase plan designed to build up to full team practices. Not all teams have to be in the same phase — outdoor sports could proceed to phase three before indoor sports.
In phase one, teams are allowed to practice with a maximum of 10 players; in phase two, teams can practice with up to half their roster; and in phase three, teams can hold full team practices. Currently, the women’s basketball team is in phase one, and for head coach Misha Jackson, this means practices will be focused on individual improvement.
“These first weeks of practices will be very focused on fundamentals,” Jackson said. “So shooting, passing, agility, getting stronger — all those sorts of things.”
However, because physicality is an integral aspect of the game, adhering to University protocols limits how Jackson can organize her practices. This makes it challenging for coaches to develop new players and for new players to assimilate into the program.
“They’ve got to learn the intensity of a practice,” Jackson said. “It’s going to be challenging for us coaches to get that across as we’re obviously not going to be having that type of practice to start off with, but we do owe it to them to make sure they’re getting a true sense of what our program is about.”
For the athletes who can practice, they still yearn for the opportunity to compete in games, meets or matches. Sophomore swimmer Willem Goedecke believes that collegiate swimming and diving competition may come to fruition in the form of virtual meets.
“Essentially, we will swim at the [Woodruff Physical Education Center] ourselves and then upload all of our times to a database,” Goedecke said. “Another team at the same time will compete at their pool, and we’ll combine all the data and then score it like a normal meet.”
Although swimming is conducive to innovative ideas like virtual meets, not all sports can be played virtually. This has been a source of frustration for junior shortstop Zeke Diamond, whose season remains uncertain.
“It’s very annoying not knowing what you’re actually working for,” Diamond said. “Obviously we’re working for a season and to win as many [games] as possible, but we just want to know that we can play.”
After the University Athletic Association canceled formal spring sport competition for spring 2021 on Jan. 12, the only opportunity for Emory athletes to compete this season would be against local competition, if at all.
Given the pandemic’s unpredictability, many players have expressed cautious optimism for the future of competition.
“It’s just hard to say,” Schaefer said. “If I had my best guess, we’ll have local games, but it will still be very, very different this year.
Jessica Solomon contributed reporting.