“I miss my team,” she said.
Had Sunday been a normal Sunday, which it decidedly was not, Meghan Doherty would have been with her teammates on the University of Maryland women’s lacrosse team, preparing to host James Madison. It was to be her last season with the Terrapins, the defending national champions. Instead, the lacrosse she plays is with Olive, her sister’s pit bull, in their Baltimore backyard.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “I miss it so much.”
But what if the end is not the end? What if the NCAA considers all the seasons of all the seniors that were wiped out by the novel coronavirus pandemic and grants them another chance at closure by giving them another year of eligibility?
“My team and even other teams, we feel like we have a little bit of unfinished business,” White said. “But there’s just so many things you have to consider.”
“It’s kind of hard to process all of that,” Doherty said. “I’ve been trying not to think about it, because then I’d just overthink it.”
It goes without saying that there are more pressing, more important issues than whether Reilly White ever rows again for her Cavaliers or Meghan Doherty ever scoops up another groundball for her Terrapins. Each is highly aware of that.
“The rowing being canceled was everything to me,” White said. “But now, if you look at the world, it was so small in the grand scheme of things.”
But they also know what it felt like to be in the midst of their final seasons, only to have them screech to a halt. The lives of college athletes are built on routine and balance. Now those commodities are among those in short supply. The pandemic is bigger than us all. That doesn’t mean the pain of losing a season wasn’t raw.
“We almost knew in the back of our head it was going to happen, but no one was ready to admit it,” White said. “And then when we heard, it was just devastating. Completely devastating.”
“We’re performing on such a high level, at the top platform that we can reach,” Doherty said. “It was definitely heartbreaking for us athletes.”
Take those emotions and apply them to thousands of athletes across all the spring sports whose seasons were canceled because of the spread of the coronavirus. The most recent NCAA data shows that 5,472 women were members of Division I rowing teams in 2018-19, and another 3,661 women played lacrosse.
Back-of-the-envelope math would show that, if those numbers were roughly steady this year and a quarter of those students were in their final year of eligibility, nearly 2,300 athletes from those two sports alone would be wondering whether they might have another season ahead next spring. And that doesn’t address the men’s versions of those sports or baseball and softball, track and field and all the other athletes in all the other divisions across all the other spring sports.
On Monday, an NCAA group called the Division I Council will meet, remotely, to discuss and vote on what it is calling “eligibility relief” for students whose careers ended prematurely.
“In principle, the coordination committee agrees relief should be extended to spring sport student-athletes and supports providing schools with a framework in which they have the autonomy to make their own decisions in the best interest of their campus, conference and student-athletes,” the group said in a March 20 news release.
A committee already has granted extra eligibility for Division II athletes, and that might be a precursor. There are, of course, impacts on athletic programs and schools because coaches have recruited incoming athletes to replace those who are graduating and scholarship limits mean the pool of money available would either have to be increased or spread over more people. For the NCAA, for its schools and conferences, it’s complicated, for sure.
But it’s not simple for the athletes, either. Both White and Doherty, for instance, were on partial scholarships. So the upshot: Coming back to school for another season of competition would mean laying out more money to make it happen.
“It’s definitely hard to ask your parents to give you more than they’ve already given you,” said Doherty, the youngest of six children.
There is, too, the matter of futures planned that would have to be delayed. White and Doherty will graduate this spring. Would they enroll in graduate courses? Doherty figured she would be logging hours for a future as an occupational therapist, for which she would need graduate school. But White expected to take a job in finance. College — and college sports — was slipping into the past.
“It’s hard because it’s so uncertain,” White said. “Especially entering the finance industry because there’s so much uncertainty surrounding that. I’m still so excited for that opportunity.”
“I think, for me, I just need to know,” she said. “I don’t like to play around with the theoretical. I like tangible things that I can put down on paper and look at.”
By Monday night, the NCAA should have something for White and the thousands of athletes like her to look at. But that won’t be the end of it. Individual conferences — for White, the ACC; for Doherty, the Big Ten — will have to consider how any framework fits their schools. Schools and athletic departments, in turn, would have to figure out how the finances would work — not just for the upcoming year but for the years that follow.
For now, there are only the games that aren’t being played. When they returned to school after winter break, their springs were planned — practice and train, compete, go to class, get fitted for that cap and gown. Now there is only a dull lament for experiences that might never happen — or could be delayed.
“I miss it all,” Doherty said. “The competition — even just in practice. Being able to be with your teammates. We made the best memories on the field and off the field. I miss seeing them every day and being able to laugh everything off.”
The NCAA should grant the extra year of eligibility. Member schools and athletic departments — and individual coaches and teams — should figure out how to best make that work.
But even if that happens, remember Reilly White and Meghan Doherty and the thousands of athletes like them who were looking forward to this spring — and would have to decide whether they could turn this spring into next spring.
“I was really in for two more months,” White said. “Do you want to go back and start from ground zero and do eight more months? It’s such a tough call.”