“We’re not allowed to do that.”
That’s the message you get when you call to ask to use parking at Heritage United Methodist Church on Baker Rd. The church sits adjacent to Virginia Wesleyan University’s TowneBank Arena, where the Marlin baseball and softball teams compete.
“I believe the extent that the university has gone to make sure there’s no spectators has upset the softball family that we have,” says Mike Glaubke, parent of a fifth-year player on the Marlins two-time national champion softball team.
Glaubke and the softball team are not alone. All sports have been impacted. Frustration with the ‘no fan’ policy has escalated among the Marlin community, without explanation or an expectation of change from the Athletic Department.
The Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) announced Jan. 11 that there will be no spectators allowed at any indoor athletic competition.
On Feb. 16, the VWU Athletic Department released their Outdoor Sports Spectator Policy for the 2021 spring semester sports seasons. “Only game essential personnel will be allowed in or around practice and competition sites” for all sports, effectively barring all friends, fans, and family. The ‘no fans’ decision was made “out of an abundance of caution and for the continued health” of the Marlin community explained the news release.
Student Athletic Advisory Committee President Skyler Lattuca explained the trouble in creating a policy, with or without SAAC’s input. “When the [ODAC] conference as a whole fails to come up with something that dictates [to] all of us, and we have all these sports coming up very quickly, the best thing you can do is make a blanket call to start until we can really have a plan in place.”
In a mid-February interview with Marlin Chronicle sports reporter Shirell Washington, Virginia Wesleyan University Executive Director of Athletics Joanne Renn similarly acknowledged the challenges of an athletics season featuring more than a dozen sports playing at the same time.
“We’ve got to worry about game management still because we have brand new protocols.” She notes the added measures the Athletic Department must take to let the teams play safely. “There’s a lot going on in and around competition that normally doesn’t involve that,” Renn said.
“Campus protocol right now is that we’re pretty much trying to maintain our bubble, and we did a really good job last fall.” Of the 15 schools in the ODAC, VWU is the only one without any fans allowed for outdoor sporting events. Each of the other schools have instituted safeguards such as allotting 2 spectator tickets per student-athlete, capping total spectators at 250 or 30% of capacity (adherent to the Second Amended Executive Order 72 from Governor Ralph Northam), and requiring masks and social distancing.
Naturally, the responses from parents not being able to watch their kids have been of frustration.
“I was very disappointed to hear that parents could not be spectators at any of the sports,” says Parent 1, a parent of a volleyball player, wishing to remain anonymous to protect their daughter.
Cindy Meinen, mother to an XCTF student-athlete, said, “It came as a huge disappointment when I heard of VWU’s plans… I felt even more let down when I saw that other ODAC schools are allowing their home teams to have spectators.”
“I don’t understand, nor has there been any further guidance or clarification since the policy came out on [Feb. 16],” Glaubke added.
One update was the announcement of a pay-for cutout program. As advertised on the website, Marlin fans could purchase for $35 a “cutout of themselves, relatives, or even your furry friends to support your Marlins.”
“I think it’s a nice sentiment, I think it was a cool idea. However, I don’t think it was thought out that well, you know,” Lattuca said, adding that it would mean more to improve live streams and highlight videos.
“In my opinion, it’s the university asking me to pay money to not be present at a sporting event,” said Parent 2, who wished to remain anonymous to protect their daughter from retribution. “It tells me that the authorities of Virginia Wesleyan are either unwilling or unable to think of ways that they can safely allow people to attend these events.”
As to the success of the program, no numbers were made available by the Athletic Department. Glaubke said, “to the best of my knowledge, we don’t have cutouts in our stands at softball. I’ll leave that to speak for itself.”
The effect of not having spectators at games is very real for student-athletes. Freshman S’Zahria Jones, a guard on the VWU women’s basketball team, acknowledged this. “It’s different having no fans because of the idea of home court advantage, and it’s kind of like some players thrive off of fan energy,” Jones said.
Sophomore Maliek Conaway, a forward on the VWU men’s basketball team, commented, “Overall, it’s pretty weird…The crowd really impacts like the momentum of the game.”
Student-athletes have still found some silver linings to not having fans cheering them on. “It also has its positives. You know, in some games it’s way easier to hear your teammates on the court,” Conaway points out.
Jones adds that the team has bonded closer, leaning on each other for support. “We found a liking [for] making a team playlist. We get to the locker room to get changed, and we’ll have our team rituals.”
But parents still lament the loss of fans. Parent 2 noted that “the difference between the practice and the game is the fans…. A huge, huge part of that experience is having people present to watch you play.”
“It’s not the same team that I’ve watched play for four seasons…. It just doesn’t seem like it’s the same group of girls that we’ve watched participate at the highest level,” Glaubke added.
Like all other decisions the past year, the spectator policy was made to prioritize the health and safety of the Marlin community, per administrative announcements.
A factor that few other schools in the ODAC have to contend with is a high population density like that of Hampton Roads. VWU’s location amid the seven cities adds another extra hurdle to facilitating an in-person semester.
VWU has found great success in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 to campus. In the Fall 2020 semester, there were only 33 total cumulative confirmed cases. As of Nov. 20, 2020, VWU had the second fewest cases among reporting private institutions, per President Scott Miller. So far in the Spring 2021 semester, 34 confirmed cases have been accounted for, keeping the total under 100 for the academic year by a considerable margin.
“I do want to say, you know, thank you, to Virginia Wesleyan for keeping students safe”, said Parent 3, a parent from out of state who requested to remain anonymous.
“I think the school has done a fabulous job of communicating about the COVID I think they’re trying to do their best and keeping the students separated,” said Parent 1.
Yet, the concerns persist for that very reason: separation. Students and parents have questions about the internal consistency of VWU’s COVID-19 protocols, and more importantly, if the degree to which they’re being enforced may be doing more harm than good.
Parent 2 acknowledged deeper problems. “They need to look at the risk of the decisions and the impact of the COVID mitigation strategies that are being implemented around the country, particularly with relation to mental health….”
A senior at VWU and avid basketball fan, Alexi Baumgardner noted the impact she has seen with COVID-19 policies. “It decreases the sense of community around campus and causes me to isolate myself even more, which is sort of the point, but it definitely messes with your mental health being stuck inside all day.”
VWU’s COVID-19 policies certainly do not mandate students stay on-campus and inside. Yet, the strict regulations of COVID-19 mitigation have still left an impact on mental health, well-documented across the country during the pandemic, including feelings of isolation.
“I’m allowed to go on campus to drop stuff off for my daughter. I’m allowed to go on campus to fix a car. I’m allowed to go on campus to assist any other student doing something with open arms, welcome[d] in,” Glaubke explained. “But I can’t watch my daughter 300 foot away on private property.”
“It’s insulting to us parents,” Keith Weddle, a softball parent, explained in a comment left on the VWU Athletics Facebook page. “There [are] no scientific reasons why there are no fans outdoors,” he said, citing the clash between VWU’s policy and the state of Virginia’s provisions.
Saturday, March 13, sophomore student Noah Hughes wanted to support his friends on the men’s tennis team while they were hosting a match against Bridgewater College. Hughes said he sat in his truck and walked around the parking lot behind the Batten Student Center and beside the Everett Tennis Center. He was asked to leave by an VWU athletics employee.
Glaubke’s attempts to watch softball games were met similarly. “Well, I tried to be a little bit proactive and went over to the church to ask permission if it would be okay since the school had a no spectator policy on campus.”
“I approached the pastor of the church. I spoke with her personally,” Glaubke said, adding that he intended to make a donation to the Church for their good nature.
“The Church was very receptive, they didn’t see any problem with it…. They agreed that we could park in every other parking place, wear a mask, and utilize their parking lot for the first two home games of the season.” Those two match-ups would be on Wednesday Feb. 24, and Saturday, Feb. 27. A letter from the pastor confirmed permission for Glaubke and another player’s parent to attend the games.
On Wednesday, Feb. 24, Glaubke arrived to the field, and called Renn as a courtesy to let the university know they were there. “At 11 o’clock that morning [on] game day, everything was fine. At one o’clock on game day, half an hour before the start of the game, I received a text from the A.D. [Renn], asking me to leave.”
Glaubke notes his confusion turned into frustration as head women’s volleyball coach Andrea Hoover-Erbig accompanied another athletics coach and instructed him to leave. “We declined to leave because we had permission to be there, and we watched the game.”
Before Glaubke could attend Saturday’s games, per the letter’s permission, an update to the athletics department was announced on social media that Friday at 5:30 p.m. The update includes the message, “The Heritage United Methodist Church parking lot is not available for those wanting to view athletic events. Violations will result in vehicles being towed.”
With the fear of being towed, Glaubke resigned from attempts to circumvent the campus policy. “So, out of respect for our softball team, we declined to attend any further games.”
The church’s property is private and separate from VWU. However, the relationship between VWU and HUMC runs deep. The district superintendent for the Elizabeth River District of the United Methodist Church, in which HUMC lies, is Wayne Snead, an ex-officio designate on VWU’s Board of Trustees. Moreover, VWU plans to appoint a minister from HUMC in a “joint capacity” as “Pastor of HUMC and Chaplain of Virginia Wesleyan University,” per a March 8 Nota Bene.
At the time of publication for this piece, the Feb. 16 ‘no fan’ policy has received no update beyond the partnership to tow violators at HUMC. On the possibility of new policy, Lattuca notes “the expression by various coaches and administration [is] that we would like to look into having spectators,” and that informally, discussions are taking place.
“I believe VWU can do better for its athletes and parent supporters,” said Meinen, who hasn’t seen her daughter run since fall 2019.
“I mean I know…the number of hours and days and weeks and years of effort that went into getting her to where she is” Parent 2 says of his daughter.
Glaubke explained that “I want to watch my daughter play her last game in a Virginia Wesleyan uniform, in person. I don’t want to watch it through a video feed, I don’t want to watch it on TV, I don’t want to hear it on the radio, I don’t want to look at it on my phone.”
The Chronicle asked Vice President for Campus Life and Operational Management Keith Moore, Head Softball Coach Elliot, and Associate Director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Head Women’s Soccer Coach Bowers for an interview regarding this story. Moore and Elliot deferred to Executive Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Joanne Renn. Bowers did not reply to Chronicle requests. Renn repeatedly declined to comment.
By Nicholas Mundy and Alex Powers
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