Football is all about heart, dedication, and coming together. Lots of team sports revolve around working together, but none come close to football. Each and every player on the field needs to work with one another as a single unit to achieve success. A major aspect of this sport is community. Without the right chemistry, winning becomes an impossible task.
With less than two weeks left before training camp, Marist College decided to withdraw from the Pioneer Football League’s 2021 spring football season. It was a decision by the school’s athletic department that was made in the name of safety and precaution. Nobody on the roster was pleased with the administration’s decision to cancel the season, as many players expressed their displeasure about the handling of the situation.
“I have been preparing for months trying to get ready for the season,” said safety Teddy Wright. “Accepting that it was canceled was hard to take in and almost unbelievable to grasp.”
After losing the fall season, the entire team was ready and anxious for a potential spring one. But it never came, and the players were utterly shocked by the news, with Wright, a redshirt junior even emphasizing how he “couldn’t believe it at first”.
Quarterback Luke Strnad provided his perspective on the matter as he discussed the importance of the sport.
“For a lot of guys, it’s their escape, they resort back to football to escape from the real world,” Strnad said. “They are consistently going to football to leave their real-life problems. To take that away from us is definitely hard and sad.”
The redshirt junior understood the uncertainty heading into the spring but elaborated how it was “definitely difficult” to process considering all the training they have put in leading up to the potential season.
Sports help athletes cope with all other aspects of life – releasing frustrations and getting away from outside issues by leaving it all out on the field. Redshirt sophomore Ethan Parrish shared his mindset at the time of the announcement.
“When the news came out, I immediately had tears rolling down my face because I have personal connections to football. It gives me a big reason to play and all of a sudden that reason is taken away from me and it sucks.” Parrish elaborated on how the news made him and his fellow teammates feel as student-athletes. “At this point we kind of feel like we are just regular people. We are not student-athletes anymore and they are really taking that away from us.”
The road to having a football season during the pandemic has been rocky from the start. In August, the PFL officially announced they would not play their regularly scheduled fall season. The league had discussed a schedule consisting of only in-conference opponents that would start at the end of September at the earliest. That idea was eventually scrapped due to “challenges related to team travel, as well as difficulties meeting applicable state, local, and institutional health requirements and COVID-19 mitigation strategies,” said the league in a statement.
It looked as though the Red Foxes would miss out on the 2020 season. But in late November, a glowing sign of hope appeared. The PFL announced it would implement a six-game season in the spring of 2021. Games would be held every Saturday from March 13 to April 17. It wasn’t a normal season, but it was a chance for the Red Foxes to get back on the gridiron.
“We all knew that it was going to be a tough climb,” Tim Murray, Marist’s Director of Athletics, said about the plan, which he knew would have to be ready to be adjusted on the fly.
He and athletic directors from the other PFL football programs were ready to cancel a few games if needed and play with an even shorter schedule. The group felt optimistic about the new schedule based on how their campuses had done in the fall. But they were always aware that the plan’s feasibility was contingent on factors well beyond their control.
“I think we all knew that there was a chance that it wouldn’t happen,” Murray said. “Everything was dependent on conditions…on your campus, in the county, in the state and within the region. We all knew that there was that potential.”
That sign of hope was suddenly flickering.
Collegiate sports have a timeframe. This is not the professional ranks, where players can play until their body runs out. Head coach Jim Parady said it best: “This was their window.” Coach Parady is mostly referring to the seniors but it really applies to everyone on the roster, as they all lost a year of football. Job opportunities come and go, and players can not hold back their careers to pursue an extra year of eligibility, therefore losing this season shortens most of these players’ athletic tenure. “There is no fifth year, that was the part for me which was the hardest,” Parady said.
Marist will forever be the alma mater of these athletes, but it does not mean that this season’s cancellation has not changed some of the players’ outlook on their time in Poughkeepsie.
“They are the only Division 1 school to take a chance on me, I’ve had great opportunities with internships through Marist and I just love the school and environment,” offensive lineman Ben Johnson said. “I definitely think the administration could have done a better job in this situation with at least giving us an opportunity to try to play. All the other teams in the PFL that are playing right now found a way to make it work. I just truly believe if everyone came together and worked hard towards it, we could have at least tried to make it work.”
The redshirt sophomore has no shortage of respect for the school, yet he felt slightly betrayed.
Paul Olivett, a safety, offered his grievances on the matter as well.
“The lack of communication at first is what hurt the most,” Olivett said. “I think if you are going to make a decision like that, you should be there to answer questions.” The redshirt sophomore said the school eventually addressed some of their concerns, but because of the way it was handled, it has left him with a, “negative feeling towards Marist right now.” Despite all the positives the school has provided, multiple members on the team feel disrespected.
“They kind of brushed it off like it wasn’t a big deal. We are not a scholarship team and all the other teams are, so a lot of guys are paying out of pocket and it kind of feels like they just pushed the season off because they didn’t want to deal with it,” Olivett articulated.
The decision blindsided these players. They were preparing for months and many felt there was a lack of care taken in regards to their respective sport.
The sign of hope’s existence was uneasy from the start, always flickering, on the verge of burning out.
Following the announcement of the spring season, Murray kept his eye on how well Marist was holding up. After a holiday break, the athletic directors digitally reconvened to keep their discussions on each campus’ conditions fluid. Early January meetings consisted of updates for each campus/geographic area and discussions about travel. All but two PFL teams are located in the midwest or southeast, with Marist and San Diego being the exceptions. Those two teams would need to fly in order to participate, whereas the rest of the league could mostly rely on buses, Murray explained.
“Travel is a tough one to get your arms around,” Murray said.
In addition to conversations with rival schools’ athletic directors, Murray was in communication with Marist leadership, namely Executive Vice President Geoffrey Brackett, as well as other college administrators. He explained that the true ramifications for participating in the spring league “were being talked about here on campus. And those decisions, obviously, were with the operations team, in consultation with the medical committee. Marist has an epidemiologist. They have someone who’s trained in infectious diseases. We have some really good people that are giving their input and expertise in these decisions.”
Murray laid out the risks associated with football that the group discussed. It was classified as a high-risk sport due to the persistent contact, the large roster size, traveling to other campuses, and welcoming teams from various areas of the country to Poughkeepsie. The well-being of the Dutchess County community remained under watch as the season grew closer.
“Most of the semester that we were here on campus, the positivity rate in the county was extremely low,” Murray said. “When we were having this conversation in January specific to football, that positivity rate was upwards of 10 percent.”
The deteriorating status of the COVID-19 fight in the area muddied Murray’s faith in Marist’s ability to participate in the season. Retaining the safety of the team – as well as the campus community at large – looked like a more difficult task.
“We got to the point where we felt we had enough information to make a sound decision,” Murray said.
That decision, based on the conditions at Marist, was to withdraw the Red Foxes from the season. It was announced on January 21. “The health and safety of our student athletes was paramount,” Murray said.
The sign of hope was snuffed out, eradicated.
Murray first informed the coaching staff of the decision via WebEx. He informed the players in a second call, which the coaches were also in attendance for.
“I heard from the players and how extremely disappointed they were in the decision,” Murray said. “It was very difficult for them. It was not an easy decision to make nor an easy decision to communicate nor an easy decision for our kids to get their arms around.”
Soon after the decision was announced, linebacker Arthur Pinckney set up a petition on change.org imploring Marist administrators to let the team play.
“As current Marist student-athletes, we are beyond frustrated with the leadership of the college,” the red-shirt sophomore wrote. “For many of us, football is an escape and a place where we find direction and purpose. To have that torn away is nothing short of excruciating, especially considering the many upperclassmen who have been playing the sport their entire lives, sacrificing to get to this point in their college careers and only to see it be taken away.”
Pinckney asked the college to look beyond COVID-19 prevention and to consider the hard work student-athletes have put in for a goal that they never got a chance to reach.
Initial reaction played a significant role in the collective outrage. Aside from the actual repercussions of the decision, players’ emotions were triggered first once the news broke. Coach Parady assured Murray that he would deliver the news himself because he understood the sensitivity of the topic and wanted to release it the correct way.
“I stand in front of these guys everyday and it should come from me. I thought I could answer the questions they were going to ask that night, but ultimately we could have been in more depth with the answers on that night. It was a tough night,” Parady said.
This is never the type of news a head coach wants to deliver to his team, but someone had to bite the bullet. Parady, entering his 29th season at the helm, did it the best way he knew how.
The next (hopeful) step for the team is to get into the weight room – with a limited amount of athletes per time and mask-wearing mandates – right when students return to campus for the spring semester. Murray said the tentative plan is for the team to do workouts in the weight room for three to four weeks, then to go into on-field workouts with helmets and pads in April and return to the usual off-season training schedule. He stressed that these plans were dependent on the campus’s conditions and not set in stone, but he is hopeful that conditions allow for the team to get back into the swing of things.
Marist won’t be the only PFL team to miss out on the spring season. Dayton University announced they would not participate roughly a week before Marist did and the University of St. Thomas, a new addition to the PFL, will not play in the spring either.
Murray said the group of athletic directors understood and respected each school’s decision to pull out of the season. “They were extremely supportive. The commissioner was supportive,” Murray said. “And that was one of the things that we had talked about, even in November. If anybody feels as though they’re not gonna be able to make this commitment for spring football, then you can opt-out of the season with no penalty.”
The group understood the unique challenge caused by the coronavirus, and that each campus’ conditions would be different.
The decision to remove the Red Foxes from the spring games ultimately came down to safety. Murray stressed that was his main priority, and his decision was made for that reason, even if it came at the cost of upsetting an entire roster of players.
“I thought it was a very fair process and a very, very, very difficult decision – obviously one that I supported, as difficult as I know it was and is for our football team,” Murray said.
Although football has been cancelled, other spring sports such as baseball, softball, and lacrosse are still scheduled to go ahead. It is fantastic news for those athletes, but when comparing their situations to the football teams, questions still arise.
After being asked about some of the other sports, Wright remarked, “I hope it works out for them, but it gives a sour feeling seeing other kids living out their dream in college and playing through this tough time when we were not given the opportunity to.”
The safety discussed how he feels no “negative feelings” towards any of the other athletics, though the fact that they can play, while football cannot “still itches in a way.”
Seeing other student-athletes participate in the sports they love can be difficult to accept, especially when your own sport is not being prioritized whatsoever. Parrish affirmed his vexations with the way other sports have been dealt, emphasizing, “The other thing that is really frustrating is we don’t even know if we could have a spring practice. Say we do have a full season in the fall, I don’t know how we are expected to bounce back after two years at that point.”
Besides the actual season, the football team still needs to stay in playing shape for the impending fall season, yet even earning that ability has been difficult during this time.
It was a painful realization to accept for most of the players, however, the manner at which the news was released is what really hurt them. The sparse communication, lack of forewarning, and most importantly, the complete disregard for how the athletes might react.
Why hold off the decision until a week and a half before training camp is supposed to start?
When a sport is non-scholarship, it means the players commit because of their care for their craft. For them, it truly means something to play. However, in spite of everything, Marist football will not be suiting up this spring.
Edited by Jonathan Kinane and Nicholas Stanziale
Image courtesy of Marist Athletics