The news spread quickly across campus. In a 19th-century fiction class in McCosh Hall, the co-captains of the women’s tennis team locked eyes and then burst into tears, they said. The men’s tennis team sat in stunned silence in a cramped dorm room in 1901 Hall. A baseball player said teammates gathered in their locker room at Caldwell Fieldhouse and wept.
The Ivy League had canceled the spring athletic season as the coronavirus spread and students were sent home. Seniors were particularly despondent. They would never play for Princeton again.
“It’s completely heartbreaking,” said Clare McKee ’20, on the women’s tennis team.
Most seniors planned to graduate as expected. But some men’s lacrosse players refused to accept that their Princeton careers were over. Led by Michael Sowers ’20, widely considered the nation’s best player, they were national title contenders. They knew that athletes before them — usually in cases of injury — had temporarily withdrawn from Princeton to return and compete during a fifth undergraduate year. About half of the 11 lacrosse seniors intended to do the same. Then they received an email from athletic director Mollie Marcoux Samaan ’91: Athletes who withdrew from Princeton would not be granted permission to compete the following spring.
The lacrosse program was in the middle of its most promising season in almost two decades. Now, the seniors say they feel betrayed.
“It just feels like the most powerful university in the world, that’s completely equipped to deal with a situation like this, just turned its back on the people that loved it,” Sowers said.
Initially, all signs indicated the lacrosse seniors wouldn’t have a problem, Sowers said. “We did a ton of research, and it didn’t seem that complicated,” he explained. “Our deans were very supportive. I was very optimistic. I knew the only way we wouldn’t be able to do it would be if the school brought down the hammer.”
A group of 32 lacrosse alumni rushed to offer their support, sending a letter to President Eisgruber ’83. They noted the administration had said in The Daily Princetonian that students should remain enrolled “now more than ever,” but in their letter the alumni said that rationale “rings incredibly hollow.” Students now home “twiddling thumbs” would be better served by returning next year, they wrote.
“They need to make some accommodation for these extraordinary student-athletes, or even student musicians, or student scientists, who have the same issue,” Tom Leyden ’77 explained in an interview.
In his reply, Eisgruber said many seniors might wish to return next year, but the University could not accommodate that wish. “We are all in this terrible ‘black swan’ of a year together, and we need all of our students — laboratory scientists, performing artists, student-athletes, and others — to persist and graduate if they can, even in these difficult circumstances,” he wrote.
Harvard and Yale have made the same decision on spring 2020 athletes. This reflects the “unanimous view of Ivy League presidents,” Eisgruber wrote.
Eisgruber also said he’s proud that, unlike at many universities, “Princeton and the Ivy League rightly regard student-athletes first and foremost as students.”
Sowers and his teammates find that logic hard to accept.
“We [each] came to Princeton to be a Princeton student,” Sowers explains. “But at the same time, our lives have revolved around our sport.”
Sowers wanted to fulfill his dream of winning a national championship at his dream school. Ultimately, he feels he was denied the institutional support to make that happen. “I think it’s a shame that there wasn’t anyone representing athletes in that decision-making process,” he said. “It’s not that [Eisgruber] doesn’t care. It just demonstrates there’s a lack of understanding of what sports are and what they mean at Princeton.”