Mike Jensen: Ivy League needs to give spring athletes a real shot at coming back next year

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PHILADELPHIA — Jennifer Brann answered her cell phone Saturday afternoon. Had the Penn senior softball pitcher flown back home to Houston? She was still in Philadelphia.

“I’m actually at the field, just sitting at the field,” Brann said. “Listening to music. It’s sunny and 50. We should be playing right now.”

A Penn game had been scheduled for just that time, at Harvard, first game of a doubleheader. Before all the games were cancelled everywhere. The last Penn softball game of 2020 turned out to be an intersquad scrimmage, the day after Penn’s season was officially knocked out.

“We all played different positions,” said Brann, a Quakers captain for the second straight spring, after being named first-team all-Ivy as a junior. “I’ve always wanted to be a catcher. It was my time to shine.”

While NCAA honchos have indicated that spring sports athletes should get that lost season of eligibility back next year, it isn’t that simple in the Ivy League. If you graduate from an Ivy League school, you’re not allowed to play sports while attending grad school. That’s why a Harvard basketball player is transferring to Ohio State and Penn’s Ryan Betley, among other Ivy graduating seniors, is planning to play elsewhere.

This is, by definition, a unique circumstance, this spring season lost to a global coronavirus pandemic, so the Ivy League should handle it with that in mind.

Ivy League presidents, waive your rule on not granting an additional year for graduating seniors of spring sports. Some will want to move on to the real world, such as it is right now. But if they want to play, don’t make them transfer.

If you want to be Division I, take care of your athletes. They’ve earned it. If you want to say sports is secondary to your overall mission, fine, of course. Except you’re quite happy to recruit top athletes, giving them coveted admissions slots. So you don’t then get to turn around and act like this is intramurals or club sports. You’ve got athletes this spring who were competing for national championships. Take care of them. College sports is a full-time job on top of the academic work. Respect the work they’ve put in.

Yes, this gets complicated. Some of your schools offer all sorts of masters’ degree programs, while others are limited to PhD programs with the highest admissions standards. But for this instance, don’t worry about the level playing field between schools. Worry about your athletes, who are also your students, who are also your customers.

There are no sports scholarships in the Ivy League, which make this issue both more and less complicated. You don’t have to worry about raising scholarship limits. You would presumably have to extend current financial-aid deals an extra year.

Adam Goldner, a lacrosse captain at Penn, is one of those seniors looking at all these issues. Does he defer a class or drop a class so he doesn’t graduate, so he’s eligible to come back next spring? He doesn’t know. He already has a job offer in finance.

“A lot of pillars,” Goldner said of what needs to be considered.

A lot of pillars. If seniors get an extra year of eligibility, then assume juniors, sophomores and freshmen do, too. That means five years worth of athletes on a team next spring, and maybe the year after that, and it would have to go on. Very complicated.

“Unprecedented,” Goldner said. “I don’t want to jump into anything based on emotional decisions.”

One Ivy administrator pointed out it isn’t outrageous to think that if the Ivy rule isn’t waived, three all-Americans could team up at, say, Virginia, attend grad school, instead of staying where they actually want to be.

That competitive factor shouldn’t matter so much. This is about doing the right thing. Goldner, for instance, has put in his time, and then some. Commuted from home in Allentown to Malvern Prep. (“Perfect attendance,” he noted about his senior year.) He set a Penn record last spring with 56 goals.

He didn’t mention that, only how he was a captain, and when Penn’s team was told the season was being shut down, they were in the middle of a practice. They decided to keep going, understanding that was it.

“We played like pickup basketball style — guys playing different positions, guys in goal playing attack. A lot of guys didn’t really want to leave the field.”

So both Penn’s softball and lacrosse teams chose to keep going, playing their sport just for fun, making something out of the worst kind of nothing just to be together. That could be a lesson for the Ivy presidents. That’s what they have to figure out how to do.

“Another season would be, like, everything,” Brann said. “But with financial aid … can my parents or me afford it? Does that mean I have to fail my classes this year to have the credits to play next season? What does that look like for us.”

Brann goes further.

“This whole thing, no one knows,” Brann said. “They say 12 months from now we won’t have a vaccine. Will it still be affecting sports and large gatherings? Would I still need to go to graduate school? For coming back to Penn, I’ve already missed the (admissions) deadline. I don’t know what a fifth year means for us.”

Brann also has accepted a job, in the research and development arm of the Florida Marlins’ operations department. She’s supposed to start in June, helping with analytics programs across the organization. A dream job.

But what if …

“Do I have to attend Penn to play softball?” Brann said. “I think yes, but what if no? Do I have to give up my job?”

You can see why the Marlins hired Brann. She’s capable of thinking creatively, way outside the box. Is it really so outrageous to say this group of spring-sport seniors couldn’t come back and play next year? Penn doesn’t mind band alumni coming back to play at Palestra games. Is it really so different? It would actually be kind of life-affirming, at a time when that’s a glorious message. Brann suggested she wasn’t at the field Saturday because she was already nostalgic for what she’d lost. Penn Park was just a nice place to be on a nice afternoon, a good spot for some social distancing.

Before the last Penn lacrosse practice, Goldner didn’t know what it was the last practice when he said a few words to teammates, as the captains typically do. It just struck Goldner later, how his words hit the mark more than he even intended them to hit.

“Treat every practice like your last,” Goldner had told his teammates that day. “Treat every rep as your last.”

Except if the Ivy League does the right thing, it doesn’t have to be.


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