I live in a pod with more varsity athletes than non-athletes. I see every day how their commitment to their teams and their sports enhances their Williams experience, provides opportunities for teamwork and leadership, and offers joy at an often stressful school. I see and admire how engaged they are with their classes and other extracurriculars and how their hard work on the field complements their academics.
But, like everyone at Williams, I have also seen the aftermath of the party at Wood House, where over 100 students partied without masks, creating prime conditions for a superspreader event. I know some have seen the lack of positive cases as evidence of the College’s overreaction. This defense misses the point. Potential superspreader events have binary outcomes: either we get lucky, as we seemingly did in this case, and no one at the party was infectious, and thus no one gets sick. Alternatively, if even one person was sick with COVID, the cramped conditions of a sweaty common room would likely have caused at least dozens of first-order infections when partiers return to their pods or mingle with Williamstown residents on Spring St. We got lucky in this case, but we shouldn’t mistake our luck for a lack of risk.
Unlike most non-varsity athletes at Williams, I have also seen Athletic Director Lisa Melendy’s response to the Wood party in the wake of the recent announcement that NESCAC competitive play will resume. I was forwarded the email (which went out to all varsity athletes, but not non-varsity athletes like myself) by a friend who found Melendy’s tone disconcerting. This email raises serious questions about the athletic department’s commitment to COVID protocols and ability to safely return to competition. In the email, Melendy writes:
While I couldn’t be more pleased for our spring athletes, I’m heartsick that many of our teammates aren’t here to participate… This has been a hard week for you as athletes and all of us in Athletics, as well as for the community broadly. While I can’t condone the breaking of college rules, I was proud of those of you who came forward and accepted responsibility even when you knew it meant leaving campus, in-person classes and time with teammates and friends.
I challenge you to come up with a weaker condemnation of a party during a pandemic than “while I can’t condone the breaking of college rules.” Melendy offers no sympathy to those who spent an anxious week wondering if an outbreak would force us to leave campus, but she is “heartsick” for the athletes whose egregious pandemic-partying has sent them home. She offers her praise not to those with the sense to avoid the party, but rather to those who came forward. Melendy continues:
I also want to take a moment to say candidly that I was disappointed in those who took the incident as an opportunity to defame Williams athletes as a whole or say hurtful things about some of you and us. Maud knows that not everyone agrees with her response to the party. But we are unified in our dismay with such conduct, and in our resolve to overcome this harmful division in our community.
At no point in the email does she express any issue with those who went to Wood. Rather, she expresses disappointment with those who “defame” athletes. Make no mistake: When she writes that “we are unified in our dismay with such conduct,” she is not criticizing those who partied at Wood; she is criticizing the outrage on campus at such egoistic behavior. And I wonder how undermining Maud’s decision-making helps bring together a divided campus?
If you think that I’ve taken these quotes out of context or represented them unfairly, read the email for yourself — I’ve linked it here in full. In any case, I think we can all agree that this dismissal of COVID safety protocols should hardly give the community confidence in the athletic department’s ability to direct a safe return to spring sports.
In my view, the NESCAC’s plan to return to play is a good one that could be done safely, if and only if all the expressed rules are followed. I know that many people now have doubts about athletes’ willingness to follow these rules. Prior to Melendy’s email, I would have disagreed: We shouldn’t, I would have said, punish the many for the actions of the few. There are hundreds of student-athletes on campus, not even close to a majority of them attended the party at Wood, and of course some non-athletes attended.
But Melendy’s email now raises questions about the ability of the athletic department to safely return to play. When several teams have lost close to half their members to partying, we should expect a stronger response from the athletic department. But when Melendy barely condemns the disregard of others’ safety, we have to ask: How committed is the department to playing sports safely? Does Melendy view Wood as an isolated incident for which individuals were held responsible? Does her lack of condemnation reflect a failure of culture that has put the community at risk? Has the athletic department made any attempt to investigate and reckon with the team cultures that led to a 100-person party? Do the teams that have collectively lost dozens of members have the culture and leadership to return to play without contracting and spreading COVID?
I truly believe that not only can we return to athletic competition safely, doing so is important. I see just how much it means to many people on this campus to be able to compete with their teams. But the athletic department must do more to reassure the campus community of its ability to do so safely. A fuller reckoning must take place. Seven Directors’ Cups in a row is not an aberration, and neither is Wood.
Simon Kessel ’21 is an economics and political science major from Seattle, Wash.