Harvard College student athletes reacted with surprise, gratitude, and skepticism to the Ivy League’s decision Thursday to allow current senior student athletes to compete as graduate students next year, in a reversal of a longstanding League policy barring graduate students from competition.
Harvard College senior student athletes will be allowed to compete for Harvard as graduate students during the 2021-2022 academic year, Harvard Athletics Director Erin McDermott announced in an email to senior athletes Thursday.
The Ivy League presidents granted a temporary waiver to Ivy League senior student athletes whose sports seasons were canceled due to the pandemic, per a League statement McDermott provided in the email.
Following the NCAA’s announcement that athletes whose seasons were canceled due to Covid-19 would preserve an extra year of eligibility, the Ivy League released its own statement in April stating it would continue its policy barring graduate students from athletics. As a result, Harvard athletes who wanted to use their eligibility would have to do so at a university outside of the League.
On Thursday, though, the League acknowledged senior student athletes’ unique situations by issuing the waiver. The waiver only applies to Ivy League students graduating this spring.
Student Athlete Advisory Committee Co-President Matthew R. Thomas ’21 said he welcomed the news Thursday afternoon. Thomas said the League’s policy change was the upshot of student-athlete advocacy across the Ivy League.
“This was actually almost entirely Ivy League SAAC-driven,” he said. “We actually wrote a letter that we sent to the Ivy League administration saying, ‘Hey, can you please consider allowing graduate students to play?’”
Thomas, a member of Harvard’s baseball team, said he is excited about the opportunity to continue his Harvard athletics career. For the 2021-2022 academic year, he will attend the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
“I’m in a unique position where it is a possibility,” he said. “I’ll be a Harvard graduate student where this is actually something that I might be able to look at and see if I want to do.”
Still, Harvard football player Eric J. Wilson ’21 said he believes the Ivy League’s decision is “great,” but “too little, too late.”
“Either people have already taken a semester off or are currently taking a semester off, or have already made their plans set for next year about what they’re doing, like myself,” Wilson said. “It’s not even on the table as an option for anyone that I know.”
Wilson — who will compete for Pennsylvania State University after graduating this year — is among some of the Harvard seniors who have opted to use their remaining eligibility at a non-League institution as a graduate student. Had the League approved the waiver earlier, he said, remaining on the Harvard team while pursuing graduate studies in Cambridge may have been an option.
“The announcement at this time is pretty tough,” Wilson said. “That means prepping for a GMAT or GRE in this short time period and pretty much having to figure out how you’re going to ace it in about a few weeks.”
Some rising senior student athletes currently on leave from the College said they are also skeptical about the Ivy League’s decision.
Men’s lacrosse player Charles E. Olmert ’21-’22 said he already made plans under the assumption that he could not play for Harvard’s lacrosse team after graduating from the College. Olmert said he wished the League would have made its decision sooner — not 11 months after his lacrosse season was canceled.
“It may have changed my decision if I’d known this back in August and just may have changed some of the things I was thinking about my future whether that may have been applying to law school for right after my senior year,” Olmert said. “Having thought back in August that I couldn’t play as a grad, I was 100 percent committed to taking a leave of absence.”
Harvard squash player Samuel B. Scherl ’21-’22 said the waiver is a “nice gesture” from the Ivy League, but one he said comes “a little too late” for many enrolled seniors.
Scherl, who is taking a gap year, said he would have declared his leave even if the waiver for seniors had been offered before last fall.
“It wouldn’t have affected my enrollment plans,” he said. “It’s pretty hard to make an enrollment decision hoping that you’ll get into Harvard grad school.”
Amelia F. “Mimi” Tarrant ’21, who plays on the field hockey team and took a leave of absence last fall to preserve her eligibility, also said the League’s decision was “too little, too late.”
“I think that this could have been effective if they had announced this decision to allow grad students to play back in, let’s say, September, whilst people were deciding about whether to take a leave or not — so for example, with me,” she said. “This now doesn’t really apply to me because I’ve already taken my leave from Harvard.”
Tarrant also said she believes the Ivy League’s regular policy barring graduate students from competition puts it at a disadvantage.
“I do feel quite strongly that the Ivy League does compromise itself quite significantly by not allowing grad students to play,” she said. “This just seems like another bureaucratic thing that hinders the quality of sport played within the Ivy League.”
Ivy League spokesperson Matthew J. Panto did not respond to a request for comment.
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