By MacKenzie Brady
While the fall semester is being taught virtually because of COVID-19, Washington College Athletics — following guidelines and suggestions put in place by the United States Government, Maryland State Government, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and WC — is trying to establish some sense of normalcy for WC student-athletes.
The NCAA has cancelled sports through Dec. 31.
WC student-athletes living in Kent and Queen Anne’s Counties were given the option to participate in practices and use the College’s facilities to stay in shape and fine-tune their skills while sports are cancelled.
On Friday, Sept. 25, roughly 30 student-athletes from six different teams attended an off-campus party, according to Director of Athletics Thaddeus Moore. Those athletes have received a two-week suspension from practice, which also prevents them from using any WC facilities like the weight room, cardio room, and fields.
The party was brought to Moore’s attention on Sunday, Sept. 27 by Assistant Director of Athletics and Head Men’s Lacrosse Coach Jeff Shirk. Shirk became aware of the party on the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 26, but he was unable to speak to his players until the next day.
Moore informed the other head coaches about the party on Monday, Sept. 28 at their weekly meeting.
“I got a call the morning after a social gathering that exceeded the maximum number of what was in that contract. A couple guys on my team reached out and said, ‘this is what happened, and you know what should we do from here?’ and that’s when I got Thad involved and there were obvious repercussions because everything that’s in place is with the goal of allowing us to come back in person, be able to practice, and not have any outbreaks that would force us to shut down again,” Shirk said.
WC Athletics has been taking measures against COVID-19 seriously, and has a number of rules in place for student-athletes and coaches both on and off the field.
In order for WC student-athletes to come back and practice, they had to not only complete their normal documentation — provide their medical histories, get a physical from their doctor, and complete a concussion baseline test, among them — they also had to get a COVID-19 test at Health Services, use the Emocha app daily to track their temperature and symptoms, and sign a contract that stated they would remain socially distant, wear masks in public, not meet in groups larger than 10, etc. to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The contract also outlined the consequences should student-athletes break it — the first instance of a breach of contract results in a two-week suspension from practice, a second instance will result in a suspension for the remainder of the semester.
According to Moore, 152 student-athletes have been approved to practice. Those students have completed the necessary documentation and are being tracked by the athletics department to ensure they are abiding by the contract.
Coaches are also taking student-athlete’s temperatures and checking that they have at least three consecutive days’ worth of badges in the Emocha app before they can participate. Coaches log which student-athletes are attending practices and using equipment so they can do contact tracing should someone test positive for COVID-19.
According to Shirk, the party started as a small social gathering outside with less than 10 attendees, which followed the contract guidelines. However, as word spread that students were getting together, more showed up and the party got out of hand.
Several teams’ practices were scheduled to start on Monday, Sept. 28. Athletes on those teams who were at the party will not begin practice until Monday, Oct. 12, when their suspension ends. Athletes whose practices have not started yet will serve their suspension once they do, but will not have access to facilities until Monday, Oct. 12 in the meantime.
“We were upfront and forthcoming with what our expectations were and if they didn’t meet those expectations, what the ramifications were going to be,” Moore said.
Not only were the student-athletes given the contract to sign, there was also a WC Athletics Zoom meeting where all of the rules, regulations, ramifications, and expectations were discussed, and coaches have been vocal about the importance of following the rules.
Shirk has talked to his team about the importance of being social from a mental health standpoint, but has also stressed the need to be social safely.
“I’m not telling you guys not to hang out, I’m telling you that if you’re going to hang out it’s got to be outside and it’s got to be in groups of 10 or less. And if you’re going to hang out inside, it’s got to be with the people you live with and nobody else. That gives us the best opportunity to get back to playing and working together with hopefully minimizing any possible outbreaks,” Shirk said about his messaging to his team.
According to Shirk, his players realized their mistake the next morning and told him what happened, rather than waiting for him to find out from someone else.
Shirk said that he did not think the party was malicious, but that it was a small social gathering that got out of hand.
“I do think it was kind of an honest mistake that got out of control and where [his players] made their mistake is that they didn’t shut it down and make a good decision after the group got too big,” Shirk said.
“The student-athletes, outside of this blip — which I believe it is a blip — I think the student-athletes have been responsible,” Head Men’s Basketball Coach Aaron Goodman said, stressing that WC Athletics have been taking COVID-19 protocols very seriously.
“It’s not a laughing matter, it’s not something that — you know, again, slap on the wrist — it’s a learning experience. I can speak just from my players, they’re apologetic, [they] understand. I don’t anticipate it happening again. I was disappointed the first time and I would be even more so if we have to have another learning experience,” Goodman said, hoping that the student-athletes grow from this experience.
Initially, Shirk said he was angry about what happened because he set out his expectations and they weren’t followed, but as he got over the initial emotion and pieced the facts together, he tried to turn it into a learning opportunity.
“This is where you find out how committed people are, and maybe what their true character is to where you have a mistake, you make a mistake and how do you respond to it? Do you get better, do you make some changes, do you move forward in a positive direction and not make the same mistakes? Or do you become the person that continues to habitually make those mistakes and show where your focus is and where your priorities are,” Shirk said, emphasizing that any leniency that may have been given before would not be given next time because the student-athletes should have learned their lesson.
Shirk said that he has told his players that he does not want them not to be social, they just need to cut back on their social habits in order to succeed and pursue their education and college athletic career.
“Yes, it was upsetting in the first place, but at the end of it, I’m also very proud that they’re [the student-athletes involved who told their coach] taking this seriously and they consulted with their coach to let us know that this event occurred so we could handle it in an appropriate way. Because at the end of the day what we’re trying to do is ensure the safety of not only our student-athletes but the community with our students on campus and then obviously the community of Chestertown,” Moore said.
“Ultimately, we all have to learn from our mistakes and these are challenging times — we’ve seen at various colleges, things happen — the challenge of being a college student and wanting to be with your friends, we just have to be smart about it,” Goodman said. “It’s your personal responsibility to make good decisions.”
According to Moore, if the number of COVID-19 cases begin to rise at the College or in Chestertown, they will “pull back” their practicing. Similarly, if 10% of any of the teams test positive for COVID-19, they will pull back immediately as well.
“We want to give our student-athletes the opportunity to practice and the [parameters] we put in place we’re doing our due-diligence to make sure it’s as safe of an environment as we possibly can in the current situation that we’re facing right now,” Moore said.
Despite the party, WC Athletics is cautiously optimistic that they will be successful in the endeavor to get student-athletes practicing while preventing the spread of COVID-19, according to Moore.
Student-athletes will not be receiving regular or continuous COVID-19 testing. Those student-athletes who were at the party will not have to get COVID-19 tested again before they return to practice when their suspension is up.