By: Taylor Riemersma and Nick Schreiter
The smell of fresh cut grass, the view of the lush green fairway, the sound of a driver shaping a golf ball and the sight of one sport at Nebraska Wesleyan University that did not get canceled this fall: women’s golf.
Even then, playing in a pandemic for Peyton Savington, a junior golfer on the women’s team at Wesleyan has been “really, really hard.”
“My mother is immune compromised so I haven’t seen her since March,” she said, but was finally able to see her mother in August.
The cancellation of sports since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a significant toll on the mental health and wellbeing of adolescents, according to a recent study by a team of physicians, child health experts and researchers from the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
“It’s a challenge they’ve never had to deal with before,” said Nedu Izuegbunam, athletic counselor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “You have athletes who have played sports most of their lives, some at the age of 2 years old.”
The Wisconsin study found that 68 percent of the 3,243 student athletes reported feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that would typically require medical intervention – an increase of 37 percent from past research studies, and the quality-of-life scores were lower than researchers had ever found in similar studies of adolescents.
Without a structured schedule comes the challenge of finding new ways to focus on other areas of life, Izuegbunam said.
While Wesleyan’s women’s golf team is one team still playing its season, the men’s soccer team at the private Division III university in Lincoln did not get cleared to play this season.
“The shock of not being able to play was frustrating at first,” Logan Lawrence, a junior men’s soccer player at Nebraska Wesleyan, said. “I think we have all come to terms with it, and we get it. We are a high-contact sport and that there is a bigger chance of us spreading COVID than other sports like tennis. My teammates and I are content now and ready to get out and practice.”
Even though Lawrence said he is OK with the decision now, he was in favor of at least trying to start the season before canceling it all together.
“Let us start the season and have us COVID test at the beginning like we still had to do to practice, and if someone showed COVID symptoms, have them test again,” he said.
Some other teams, such as golf, received limited clearance and restricted travel to tournaments for competition.
“We were supposed to go on a lot more trips,” Savington said, adding that fans will not be allowed in the clubhouse and extensive social distancing at practice will be required along with other measures such as leaving the flag in the hole.
Inside Memorial Stadium in the Nebraska Athletic Department, more than 600 Huskers can receive 24/7 access, support and counseling, athletic counselors like Izuegbunam are seeing a lot more student athletes openly express symptoms of depression and anxiety, and not just social anxiety.
“I think that social distancing implies that we shouldn’t socialize,” Izuegbunam said. “I like to call it physical distancing. Right now, more than ever, we need to keep those connections, whether that’s through virtual means such as Zoom, gaming, texting or Facetime. If there was ever a time to interact with other human beings, it’s now.”
UNL student athletes receive support through counseling and talking about their personal lives with the sports psychology team. Izuegbunam said the athletic counselors are looking at starting groups for transitioning from life without sports, adulting and stress management. He also recommended the counseling center on campus.
Without sports, it’s hard to do many things if you aren’t mentally right, Izuegbunam said.
“Make sure you’re functioning right,” he said. “Make sure you process what you are thinking. Make sure to talk to someone — That can be valuable. It can help gain an understanding of what you are going through.”
As the year progressed and coronavirus remained, fans questioned when sports would return. In June, Supercross started the first-ever bubble, an isolated area of athletes and personnel in Salt Lake City for six-straight weeks of championship racing. In July, NASCAR, the WNBA and the NBA competed without fans in isolated locations.
The NCAA released options to individuals, schools and conferences to make the decision that best suited them. Some colleges and conferences canceled sports altogether at first but reevaluated and are planning to have a season after all — like the Big Ten and Pac-12. Others like the SEC, Big 12 and ACC decided to proceed from the start, and still other conferences canceled some sports and held seasons for others.
Some nearby fan bases were left in awkward spots, as states like Iowa always had Iowa State University to root for, even when the University of Iowa wasn’t allowed to play at first.
The University of Kansas and Kansas State University were playing football from the beginning. Kansas State and the UNL are separated by 139 miles and eons apart with how their sports seasons would go if conference leaders had stuck to their original decisions.
Without football, many Nebraskans had nothing to look forward to for a while. The fallout could have left at least 90,000 fans sitting at home on the weekends without any other team to root for while teams a few hours away played ball.
Most athletes said they were ready to play during the pandemic. Some, like Savington, said she did not feel completely comfortable playing in competitions.
“I feel safe about practices and that sort of thing,” she said. “(But) I don’t know who else around me has been social distancing or has been making sure they’re being safe wearing their mask.”
During practice on the Wesleyan soccer team, Lawrence said it has been more difficult to bond with his teammates and get to know them while wearing masks.
“Where in years past, I’d hang out with them outside of the field, and when I’m on the field, just focus on soccer,” he said. “We have to bond on the field a lot more.”
Many Americans have different ideas for how government bodies should respond to the pandemic, which has made coming to a consensus on how to handle college athletics a difficult and often hot topic.
Some Big Ten parents sent letters expressing their concerns following the decision to postpone fall sports. Eight Huskers football players sued the Big Ten, and two state attorneys general threatened to file a suit against the Big Ten for monetary damages. Even President Trump tweeted his support for Big Ten football to return. Finally, the Big Ten conference reversed its course and approved a condensed fall football schedule.
“There’s plenty of positive components that sports have on mental health,” Izuegbunam said. “From a fan aspect, it brings people together. You may meet people that you have never met because of competition, whether that is as a fan or an athlete. That team camaraderie, that sense of belonging, is so much to us mentally in a positive way.”