Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier sports editor
On Sept. 16, President Steve Briggs announced that Berry would be suspending all team practices for the foreseeable future. The decision, which Briggs announced in Berry’s weekly COVID-19 email update, came after the college saw an increase in student cases, many of them linked to athletic teams.
Director of Athletics Angel Mason said the administration will take this time to evaluate current safety measures, with further decisions expected by the end of the month.
“We’re taking a pause from athletics right now to kind of just review where we are with the cases and quarantines and isolation and so on,” Mason said. “We will continue to review the situation, and I would say we will probably be prepared for our next round of updates at the end of the month. We have some conversations that are coming up with our health services here, as well as our medical professionals that support intercollegiate athletics for us, to just kind of review what we’ve had thus far, and then how we can plan that out for moving forward and our ability to come back as a group.”
Berry’s teams only started practicing at the beginning of the month, and, according to Mason, everyone had been following NCAA guidelines. Because of this, she said the department might implement even stricter protocol when training resumes.
“When they’re in the weight rooms, they’re wearing masks; when they’re at practices, they’re wearing masks; in spaces where it’s an actual possibility, they’re staying more of a distance apart,” Mason said. “And I would say just like any space, there’s a learning curve to that. We can’t expect of ourselves to be perfect, so I don’t expect for our athletes to be perfect out of the gate. I think that there’s got to be some level of space for improvement, which we knew we have, and so we’re continuing on with those measures, but we may have to put some additional measures in place.”
In addition to masks and social distancing, restrictions have also been placed on physical spaces such as team locker rooms and the athletic weight room. While locker rooms have previously been used to watch film, hold study hall or conduct team meetings, they are now exclusively used for players to change. As for the weight room, a strict schedule has been set in place to prevent overcrowding and allow for thorough cleaning between uses. Mason said players have been made aware of these changes, as well as additional COVID-19 risks and safety information, in an assumption-of-risk form they were required to sign before starting practice.
One of the teams affected by the recent outbreak has been the volleyball team, but head coach Caitlyn Moriarty said she does not believe that it was for a lack of safety precautions.
“I feel strongly that the protocols that we had set in place were preventing the spread on our team,” Moriarty said. “The cases that we have had have not been a result of practice setting. I think anytime you have a really close-knit team that’s kind of a risk, even though I feel really strongly that our team was committed to following Berry’s rules and really bought into the idea that if we follow these rules and we do it to the best of our ability, then we can keep everybody at Berry for the whole semester. So I don’t think it was an issue of following the rules or a lack of judgment. I think it was just the outcome of having a really close-knit team.”
Thomas Johnson, head coach for the women’s basketball team, said his players have so far been more fortunate in avoiding possible exposure. And with the team’s official start date not until Oct. 1, Johnson said he hopes the department will have resolved any issues by then so that they can retain hopes of getting a season.
“If the student population can abide by the guidelines set down by the administration and our athletes can do the same, then hopefully we can be the first team to have a sport season this year,” Johnson said. “But if they don’t, then obviously we’ll be shut down as well, and that’s something that we hope doesn’t happen.”
To maximize their chances, Johnson said his team will go beyond current protocol, notably choosing to forego the use of locker rooms entirely.
“We’re not using any locker rooms at all because they are smaller spaces and it’s difficult to maintain six feet distance,” Johnson said. “So our players, when they do come, are going to come dressed and they will keep all their practice stuff in their room.”
None of this can happen, however, until the athletic department decides how it wishes to proceed with the semester. Until then, players and coaches will have to stay off the courts and out of the weight rooms, but Moriarty said that does not mean they will be inactive.
“While we wait on that decision, we’re just going to focus on leadership development, personal development, class meetings, even academics,” Moriarty said. “This is a great time to 100% focus on academics, without any sort of busy schedule of practices and lifting. It just frees up some time for them.”
With the safety of not only student athletes, but the larger Berry population in mind, Mason said the department will make sure to consider every angle before a decision is announced.
“We’re re-evaluating and, honestly, it’s a continued evaluation as we try and make sure that we’re doing everything that we can with the knowledge that we have at the time to keep our community as safe as possible,” Mason said. “Athletics is obviously really important to us, but how we are within the grand scheme of our college as a whole is what’s most important. Right now, being on a pause is where we need to be so we can re-evaluate where we are.”