With athletes in Kirk, students wrestle with student-athlete divide


The football field at Macalester. Photo by Malcolm Cooke ’21.

Margaret Moran, Editor-in-Chief

In a normal year, first-year Macalester student-athletes move into residence halls with everyone else, sprinkled throughout the regular first-year residence halls, like Turck, Doty and Dupre. This year, all first-year Macalester student-athletes live in Kirk Hall, the only official Macalester residence hall south of Grand Ave. Student-athletes also eat all of their meals in the Leonard Center (LC), just south of Kirk.

Athletic director Donnie Brooks said this choice was made to keep athletes together to minimize risks that will be created by close contact in training and potentially competition, should that be possible. 

Originally, the college had made plans for student-athletes to live in a hotel off campus back in late June, but as the college adjusted its fall plans in early August, it decided that student-athletes would live in Kirk. 

“As an athletic director I’m happy to work at a college that sees and supports the athletic identity and the athletic experience but wants to do it as safely as possible,” Brooks said. “So that’s how you end up with decisions like a hotel, or student-athletes at Kirk or the decisions we have made around the LC. The [decisions] are really focused around community safety and athlete safety.”

Athletes living in Kirk have started to train in groups smaller than ten, but competition is a ways off. At the end of August, the MIAC announced that competition would be postponed until January 2021, in accordance with guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), NCAA resocialization requirements and the latest NCAA Administrative Committee recommendation.

Living in Kirk has come with a set of challenges for student-athletes, as they work to integrate into the larger campus community while living separately from the rest of their classmates who are not varsity athletes. 

Talia Chait ’24, a tennis player, said that while she is enjoying her time at Macalester, she feels isolated from the rest of the non-athlete campus community living in Turck, Doty, Dupre, Bigelow and Wallace. She also sometimes wishes she could eat in Café Mac.

“I feel like eating and socializing is combined a lot of times, but we’re only allowed to eat in the Leonard Center, so all we’re allowed to do is eat with other athletes,” Chait said.

Chait said that she came to Macalester partially because she appreciated how student-athletes were able to make connections with non-athletes.

“I came and visited the school before I decided to go here, and I saw tons of athletes and non-athletes together forming bonds, forming friendships,” Chait continued. “I know it’s different because of COVID, but I liked that at Mac, you don’t have to conform to one identity, you can be… part of a club, the student government, you can have many different sides to you.”

Brooks said that he is sympathetic to these concerns, but also knows that every student is having a difficult time finding ways to engage their different passions during COVID-19.

“The experience that our Kirk students are having is the same experience most fall athletes have when they come to campus,” Brooks said. “They are together in a group all of the time, and they see each other all the time.”

“Athletes are integrated into the orientation piece, but when you start as this [athletic] community, you’re eating together, you’re doing all of these things that fall athletes normally do together,” he continued.

Head men’s basketball coach Abe Woldeslassie ’08 agrees. Woldeslassie has had many conversations with his players about how to find ways to integrate into the wider Macalester community beyond the Leonard Center.

“In my opinion, and I’m only one person, the student and student-athlete divide is more perceived and more in our heads than is actually real,” Woldeslassie said. “The hard part this year, let’s be honest, is we’re all wearing masks so it’s harder to get to know people. When you pull a mask down, there’s more trust that’s built.”

Junior women’s soccer player and goalkeeper Dana Gustafson ’22 has been an athlete at Macalester since her first year. She said that while she recognizes there is a divide, having a built-in friend group with teammates can be pretty nice.

“When you come in for pre-season and you’re just with your teammates for two weeks, it can be really nice, it can be a very welcoming group of people that you already have something in common with,” Gustafson said. “Once orientation starts you don’t have as much of the nervous push to make new friends, it was easier to avoid interactions that might be awkward because I could fall back on my soccer group.”

She still encourages younger students to go out and make friends with non-athletes to give themselves some space from their sport.

“I do think when the majority of your time is spent with other soccer people, the importance of sports gets a little bit inflated, and for me it was a challenge at times,” she continued.

“As I’ve spent more time at Mac and learned more about what my interests are outside of sports, I’ve made a lot of really good friends, and it’s made me a healthier player too because it’s helped distance my soccer performance from how I think about my worth,” Gustafson said.  

Jordan Vellon ’24, a football player living in Kirk, said that while he acknowledges a little bit of a divide, it would have been much worse if athletes were off campus in a hotel.

“Being housed in a hotel would have created more of a divide, because then we’d [be] physically off campus,” Vellon said. “Personally, when I’m just interacting with people face-to-face, I don’t feel that kind of divide.”

Vellon said he is willing to make the sacrifice of living in Kirk away from non-athletes if it means he is able to play football. 

“It’s what we came here for,” Vellon said. 

“Also, academically, this school is in the top 20% of schools in the country, so the opportunities after graduation, of course,” Vellon continued. “And during my overnight with the football team I had a great time, and socially it was good, academically it was good, and I could play football.”

Vellon said that while he is optimistic that he can make friends outside of the athlete community, he has heard that some non-student-athletes are wary of athletes, believing that they may be more likely to flout social distancing guidelines.

 “I don’t know if people feel like we’re putting people at risk because of the type of stuff that we do… if that just turns people off from wanting to talk to us in the first place,” he said.

Chait has noticed a similar prejudice against student-athletes, especially after there was a party in the Kirk Courtyard on Aug. 28 in defiance of the “Mac Stays Safer” community agreement. She has heard that some student-athletes are wary to wear their Macalester Athletics gear into the Campus Center for fear of being looked down upon.

“I think the student-athletes were the first to break the rules of COVID a little, and now people are sort of looking down on student-athletes,” Chait said. “It really hasn’t happened to me, but I’ve heard from the general first-year athletic community that that is sort of what’s been going on.”

Chait has appreciated the guidance from Student Affairs and coaching staff about ways to integrate into the community despite having to live separately. However, she believes that the separation of athletes and non-athletes is a more complicated issue than they are making it out to be.

“I think that the adults in the room don’t really realize what’s going on in students’ minds,” Chait said. “I’m here, I’m in the moment, and they’re not even living in the dorms with us, they don’t get the social problems. They’re not here all the time.”

Franny Redpath ’23 is currently a resident assistant in Kirk Hall. She herself is a member of the Macalester swim team. Speaking as a student-athlete who was a first-year last year, she has noticed some changes.

“Macalester makes it their mission to just throw you in…they put with you a random roommate,” Redpath said. “You’re not supposed to be isolated with athletes. Mac is very ‘Academics come first, athletics come after that.’”

Redpath does understand that there is a bit of a separation between her residents, the athletes, and the rest of the students. “Grand [Ave.] is sort of this line, that had never really been a thing before,” she added.

Still, Redpath is doing the best she can to make her residents feel welcome and integrated.

“I think it is a different experience, but I’m not saying that it’s bad. I have done one-on-one [meetings] with all of my residents, we offer two community activities every week,” she continued. “Residential life is trying really really hard to make this work as much as possible.”

It’s not just student-athletes and resident assistants who feel this way. Alexander Thompson ’24, who is not an athlete and who lives in Dupre, says he has noticed those sentiments among non-athletes.

“There have been rumors that athletes have been partying,” Thompson said. “I say rumors because I don’t know how true they are.”

Thompson said that even if the athletes started eating at Café Mac, it would probably be difficult for them to integrate into non-athlete social groups.

“Maybe [they could], but now social groups are kind of cemented anyways, so changing it now would not make much of a difference,” Thompson said. “I think a lot of people’s perspectives on the student-athletes have already been cemented.”

El Alcala ’24 said they are not sure they have met a single athlete since they arrived at Macalester.

“I literally have not met a single athlete that I know of,” Alcala said. “I don’t think [there are any in my FYC], if there is then I am not aware that they are an athlete.”

Alcala said that they have only heard about parties or gatherings happening in Kirk. Alcala said that, at the same time, they recognize that the rumors cannot be true for all athletes.

“The only partying rumors that I’ve heard is ‘did you hear about what happened at Kirk? They all got busted for drinking in their dorm!’” Alcala said. “Which sucks, because I know that not all of them are doing that.”

I want to get to know those people and I’m sure it sucks for them being sequestered, but the rumors are flying,” they continued.

In light of the recent violations, Macalester Athletics staff have also talked to the athletes and asked them to do better abiding by the Community Commitment.

Sept. 18 Meeting

On Sept. 18, Brooks led an all-athlete Zoom meeting, where he reminded all of the athletes that they must be diligent about abiding by the Community Commitment. Brooks indicated that the meeting was mandatory, and athletes should have their “camera on.” Several student-athletes who attended the meeting said Brooks noted that 100% of Community Commitment violations have been committed by athletes.

“That was not my exact quote,” Brooks wrote in a later email to The Mac Weekly. “Although it is policy that we do not discuss judicial cases, in the context of an all-athlete meeting, I felt it was important that our community understand their responsibility to the greater community.”

At one point during the meeting, Brooks asked all of the athletes to “raise their hand if they care about their sport.”

“I wanted our athletes to know that this is not given and can be taken away if we can’t hold ourselves to a high standard of safety,” Brooks wrote. “Although the vast majority of athletes and folks around campus are doing the right thing, the impact of one bad decision can be seriously detrimental to campus or a program.”

Vellon said he was a little surprised by Brooks’ reaction at the meeting. 

“After that first Friday when we got caught [in the Kirk Courtyard], I feel like we, the athletes, especially the football team, we’ve been very mindful, wearing our masks, distance and all that, but we still get talked to all the time… by athletics,” Vellon said.

Woldeslassie was not at the meeting, but said that being an athlete comes with more responsibility.

“I think being at Macalester is an honor and a privilege and being an athlete there comes a level of responsibility,” Woldelsassie said. “It doesn’t mean that only the athletes are doing it, maybe the athletes are the only ones who got caught… being an athlete there is sometimes a larger spotlight on you, and with that there does come some responsibility.”

How Community Commitment Violations Work

Macalester Public Safety is in charge of documenting any and all Community Commitment violations in the crime and fire log. Public Safety Director Jim Kurtz said that there are a couple of ways that public safety officers observe these violations.

“The first is through observations we make during our routine patrol,” Kurtz wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly. “This is a proactive approach and our position is that compliance is all about education. If we see people who are not social distancing, we’ll remind them about the importance of following college, state, and MDH guidelines.”

“We have not received any negative feedback and most of the people we’ve encountered, which is actually very few, have been apologetic and appreciative of our efforts,” Kurtz wrote.

If Public Safety observes someone not wearing a face covering in violation of the Community Commitment pledge and state guidelines, Public Safety officers will provide one for them. Officers carry extra masks with them and will give them one and remind them of the importance of wearing them.

The second manner of response is if someone calls Public Safety about a violation. In those instances, Kurtz wrote, Public Safety will respond, educate and provide a mask if needed. For people who are outside of the Macalester community, they have been providing a copy of the Community Commitment so that they are aware of our guidelines.

Most of the violations have been individuals not social distancing, not wearing a mask or gathering in a group larger than 10 inside, 25 outside, which Kurtz said have been relatively easy for Public Safety officers to recognize.

Kurtz also noted that if there have been multiple violations of the Community Commitment in a specific area of campus, their officers pay extra attention to that area. Kurtz wrote that this happened early on with non-community member violations at the football field.

According to the crime and fire log, the last Community Commitment violation was on Sept. 4, in Kirk Hall. 

While there is disagreement and feelings of division between first-year athletes and non-student-athletes, this isn’t true for all students. There are some first-years who are not athletes who have made some good friends with athletes.

“I’m friends with a couple people on the tennis team, and I just met them randomly,” Ivy Garrison ’24, who lives in Bigelow, said. “They were just like passing in front of the CC and… I think one of them knew my friend through their orientation group so they were saying hi and we were like ‘Come sit with us.’”

“I’ve been hanging out with them quite a bit since then, and that’s been really cool because when I’m with them, I see a whole new side of campus,” Garrison said. “I don’t really interact with athletes unless I’m with them, but I’ve met a lot of people through them. It’s been really cool to see beyond my non-student-athlete side.”

When asked how she would reply to non-athletes who are concerned about student-athletes increasing the spread of COVID-19, Garrison said that the perceived risk is overblown.

“Because they are so separated and they don’t eat in the same building, and if they have to quarantine they’re in a complete other building nowhere near us, I would say don’t worry about it,” Garrison said. 

“In terms of them ruining it for the rest of us, I feel like that’s not a huge risk,” she continued. “It would be cool if they were all mixed in with the rest of us, but just for COVID reasons, I’m glad that that’s how it is.”

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