Jan. 30, 2020, senior center Nathan Knight dribbled the length of the floor inside Kaplan Arena and scored the game-winning layup to beat Northeastern with 1.5 seconds left on the clock. The student section erupted as the Tribe men’s basketball team wrapped up its eighth win of the season in the Colonial Athletic Association.
In a historic season, the Tribe led the CAA in home attendance and racked up a school record of 21 victories. Looking around that night, I noticed for the first time in my two years at the college, the growing sports culture on campus. But this culture of winning and support is nothing new.
In the 2019-20 school year, the nationally ranked, 2018 CAA champion field hockey team built a culture of winning that is not slowing down. The men’s and women’s cross-country teams have a history of winning in the CAA that is unparalleled across the nation, with the men’s team winning the last 20 consecutive conference titles. In addition, the men’s swimming team won the CAA title for the sixth consecutive year this past February, as junior Colin Wright dominated the conference in route to two top-10 national rankings in the 50 and 100-meter freestyle. Junior guard Eva Hodgson of the women’s basketball team led the CAA in scoring, set five school records, and posted some of the best shooting marks in the nation, all while leading the women’s basketball team to its best season in school history.
These are just a few examples of exceptional student athletes at the College, with the Tribe experiencing success across the entire athletic department.
Less than eight months later, the scene on campus looks entirely different from that cold winter night. As students trek around campus, required to wear masks and physically distance from others, athletic facilities lay dormant for the semester.
July 17, 2020, the athletic department announced it would be suspending all fall sports this season, dealing a blow to several student athletes amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Also, as the semester enters its fifth week, the wounds are still quite fresh from Sept. 3, when Athletic Director Samantha Huge and College President Katherine Rowe announced in an open letter that the College would be terminating an unprecedented seven sports teams: men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming, men’s indoor and outdoor track and field and women’s volleyball. Citing financial concerns, the move directly affects 118 student athletes and 13 coaches, but also negatively impacts the entire school. Recruiting for other sports is certain to take a hit, as dramatic financial losses affect the entire department. In the open letter from Sept. 3, Rowe and Huge cite a cumulative financial loss of nearly $10 million over the course of the next three years.
William and Mary already struggles to build a sports culture, but the cutting of seven highly successful sports teams in the middle of a semester without sports certainly will make things even more difficult. As the stands of Zable Stadium remain empty for the foreseeable future, students are forced to find other ways to spend their Saturdays. Homecoming will surely look different this year without students trekking to quite possibly the only football game they will attend each season.
Despite this grim picture, there is still hope for Tribe Athletics. As rumors circulate of a spring football season for the CAA, there are chances to support Tribe athletes in other ways as well. Even though the College announced the removal of those sports teams, each team will still have one final season this year to compete. In addition, students and alumni from across the College community created numerous petitions, social media pages and letters to the administration urging someone from the College to take action and “save the Tribe 7,” as the Instagram page is appropriately named.
Building a thriving sports culture at a school like William and Mary is no easy task. This is not something that happens overnight, and quite honestly, we are a long way off. But amid the financial concerns and lack of sports, the College is not alone.
Schools across the country, big and small, are suffering the effects of the pandemic, whether from lost seasons or lost programs. Just last week, the University of Minnesota announced it was cutting men’s tennis, track and field, and gymnastics. While William and Mary is not alone, the College still holds responsibility for the effects of these cuts to their athletes and community.
As we move further into this downright strange semester, it is certainly difficult to find things to look forward to. An avid sports fan, I looked forward to every basketball game this past year, as well as the track meets and field hockey games I had the privilege of covering. It may feel hard to support Tribe athletics at the moment with the lack of events, but as the year progresses, the athletes and coaches need our support. We may have to go without sports for a while, but when they return let’s get out there and support student athletes and continue growing the sports culture at William and Mary.