Fans filled the seats at Firestone Fieldhouse for Blue and Orange Madness on Oct. 8. Fans had to wear a wristband indicating they had provided proof of vaccination or had tested negative for COVID-19 prior to the event. Photo courtesy of Denver Patterson
Pepperdine student-athletes have finally had a full season with fewer COVID-19 restrictions.
After a strange 2020-2021 season where some teams saw games canceled due to outbreaks, athletes said they are eager to have a sense of normalcy once again.
“I was even grateful we got to come back last year and to have that season, and it all worked out,” senior Women’s Indoor Volleyball outside hitter Rachel Ahrens said. “I’m just extremely happy to be back this season and not have as many restrictions as last year.”
Vaccination Requirement in the NCAA
The NCAA does not require vaccines for student-athletes, Athletics Director Steve Potts said. The NCAA oversees 350 Division 1 schools and left the decision to mandate vaccines up to the individual institutions.
“Here at Pepperdine, we decided that all students had to be vaccinated or receive an exemption, and in addition to that, we’re testing weekly,” Potts said. “That was a Pepperdine decision; it goes beyond what the NCAA has required.”
Pepperdine Athletics officials declined to share the vaccination rates of student- athletes. Seaver College’s student vaccination rate is just over 85%, according to Pepperdine’s website.
In some cases, the vaccination rates for professional sports are much higher than Pepperdine’s student rates.
Infographic by Jerry Jiang
Health and Safety Protocols of Student-Athletes
Pepperdine’s COVID-19 rules are more stringent than the NCAA. Whereas all Pepperdine students are required to be tested weekly, the NCAA only requires fully vaccinated athletes be tested when they come into close contact with a positive COVID-19 case.
“If a student-athlete had tested positive last year, it meant that almost the entire team had to quarantine,” Potts said. “This year, if you’re vaccinated, then the rules are different, and just because one player tests positive doesn’t necessarily mean the whole team has to miss a contest.”
Athletes are required to test at least once a week, Athletics Assistant Director Kevin Wright wrote in an email. Pepperdine requires student-athletes to test within three days of competition.
Unvaccinated athletes must have a PCR test or an antigen test at least three times a week, Potts said. If a student-athlete comes into close contact with a positive COVID-19 case on campus, then that student must go into quarantine for 10 days, regardless of vaccination status.
When teams travel on the road, athletes must be masked and prioritize finding restaurants with outdoor seating, Ahrens said.
“The only thing we have to do is wear a mask in the airport and when we’re in the other school’s facilities,” Ahrens said.
The NCAA set the same protocols for each sport. Both indoor and outdoor athletes are required to wear a mask when indoors lifting weights, but they are allowed to unmask during practices and games, whether that be inside the court or outside on the field.
“The Bubble”: Pepperdine Edition
Because teams were unable to travel due to COVID-19 restrictions, the NBA continued its 2020 season by creating “The Bubble.” They rented out the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., and finished out the season with strict quarantine rules to limit the spread of COVID-19, Tadd Haislop of SportingNews.com reported.
Pepperdine had their own version of “The Bubble” last season. The campus was populated with student-athletes in the fall 2020 semester, though some students with hard exemptions were allowed on campus.
When athletes returned to campus, practices were split up into smaller groups.
“We weren’t allowed to practice as a full team,” Ahrens said. “So I want to say at least for the first two-to-three weeks, we had split practices. There were groups of six practicing at a time.”
It wasn’t until a month later when county restrictions allowed to have team practices. The Athletics department approved team practices when athletes went through all COVID-19 protocols, including daily testing and quarantine.
Interactive by Jerry Jiang
The Men’s Basketball team experienced a small scare early in the 2020 season when a teammate tested positive, forcing the team into quarantine, according to UPI. Pepperdine did not specify where the outbreak occurred.
“Coach [Romar] was saying that there’s still a possibility we would have our season [canceled],” senior Men’s Basketball guard Darryl Polk Jr. said. “But everyone wanted to get back on the court, so we just took that mindset, and actually, we were able to do some outside workouts during that time, so that helped a lot with the overall mood.”
Ahrens said it was stressful to stay quarantined to protect the team while being on campus.
“It was a challenge because what a lot of us experienced on the team was, ‘OK, we want to take care of our social and mental health and spend time with people,’ because as humans, that’s a natural thing you want to do,” Ahrens said. “But then we have this guilty conscious of, ‘OK, if I do that, then I have the possibility of exposing my team and really hurting our season and putting us at risk for that.’ So it was just that internal battle of what is right at that moment.”
With the NCAA loosening the protocols, athletes whose seasons are just starting said they are more than eager to be fully back on the court.
“It’s great; I can’t wait to get out there,” Polk Jr. said. “We start pretty soon, so I can’t wait for that tip off. It’ll feel almost normal, and we can have fans in the gym. I can’t wait to see a packed Firestone Fieldhouse.”
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