This has been a semester of calculated risks. In devising rules and guidelines for the campus community, administrators were tasked with creating a system allowing for a fulfilling Bowdoin experience for every student while still minimizing the potential for a COVID-19 outbreak on campus. By and large, these decisions have been effective, especially considering we only have just over a month left in the semester and are yet to leave campus status yellow. However, in past weeks, varsity athletic teams have been allowed to travel off campus and compete against other schools—a decision that does not align with the manner in which the College has been weighing the risks and benefits of other policies, and a decision that we do not agree with.
Last weekend, after having multiple games cancelled last-minute due to an uptick in COVID-19 cases at Tufts, the softball team travelled to Massachusetts for two games against Amherst. Two weeks ago, the men’s ice hockey team travelled to Waterville for an unofficial scrimmage with Colby.
The vast majority of the calculated risks taken by the campus community this semester have been decided with the benefit of the entire campus community in mind. As we progressed through the semester from Hibearnation to orange to yellow, the associated relaxations in gathering guidelines and access to campus spaces were equal in the sense that they applied to every student on campus. As every student took on some added degree of viral exposure risk in the form of more opportunities for social interaction and essential travel off campus, they were able to reap the associated benefits by doing just those things—seeing their friends more and going off campus.
The decision to allow intercollegiate athletic competition does not follow this model. Athletic teams travelling to different schools and states to play games certainly increases the risk of bringing cases back to campus and subsequently heightening the risk of COVID-19 infection for every student. However, the benefit accrued from this decision is wildly unequal, applying to only a tiny subset of the student population on campus: athletes on varsity athletic teams. If every student on campus is being told that they have to bear the risk for an administrative decision and that they have no choice in the matter, it’s only fair that they should at least have the opportunity to obtain some benefit from it.
The problem is not the athletes or coaches who are themselves choosing to participate in competition with other schools—the problem lies in the choice to make this an option in the first place while choosing to restrict opportunities of similar (or even lesser) risk that would benefit different groups of students. Groups such as ultimate frisbee, which is not a varsity sport, have expressed interest in making similar trips off campus but have been rejected by the administration. Varsity athletics, however, have not been subject to the same limitations.
While, up to this point, there has not been a significant number of COVID-19 cases on campus, it is important to keep in mind that when decisions are made, nobody knows what the outcome will be. Just because one choice didn’t lead to positive cases one time does not mean that the same decision won’t produce positive cases the next time. We can’t simply look at the results of previous decisions and disregard the associated risk. This is especially true when making choices that come with an increased risk for COVID-19 exposure. Athletic teams traveling to other schools and interacting with people outside the Bowdoin bubble can be viewed as a relatively safe activity—until it isn’t.
Everyone has had to make sacrifices this semester—whether that looks like giving up a last performance or recital in front of a live audience, losing the chance to participate in an in-person job opportunity or internship or even simply missing out on a normal senior year. Because we are sacrificing so much, the things that we choose to maintain in a somewhat “normal” manner carry an even greater weight to them, and these decisions must carefully take into account who is at risk and who is benefitting.
From a judicious standpoint, maybe the costs and benefits of the decision to allow intercollegiate athletics are equal—maybe the added risk to every student on campus is outweighed by the joy that a small subset of varsity athletes get from being able to compete against different schools. But is it really fair that the entire campus population should have to shoulder the potential risk of cases cropping up on campus as a result of teams interacting with other schools for the sake of a tiny handful of student-athletes’ gain? Bowdoin has up to this point built its COVID-19 policies around prioritizing the most fulfilling experience for every student living on campus equally while minimizing infection risk, and it should continue to do so rather than accepting a marginal gain in risk for everyone on campus in exchange for the benefit of few rather than all.
This editorial represents the majority view of the Editorial Board, which is comprised of Andrew Cohen, Dylan Sloan, Julia Jennings, Kate Lusignan, Nina McKay and Ayub Tahlil.