The widespread suspension of intramural sports has made college students blue during the coronavirus pandemic. Schools have scrambled to add virtual eSports games, but in the world of Zoom, few are seeking an increase in blue-light computer time.
The students miss intramurals for a variety of reasons: the competition, the exercise, making friends, stress release, bragging rights, or simply having fun.
“Now there’s nothing,” says Chloe Tempest, who played Ultimate Frisbee and flag football before Northeastern suspended those programs.
To keep in shape, the fourth-year mechanical engineering major does scissor-lift toe-touch crunches by herself on the artificial turf of Clemente Field in the Fens.
But it’s getting dark, and not just outside. For Tempest, there is an emptiness left by the cancellation of the intramural season.
“I’m very depressed," she says.
Tempest is well aware that temperatures are dropping, and the November time change will usher in the dreaded 4:15 p.m. sunsets. Then the icy wind will come racing down the Mass. Pike.
“I’m just really scared that when it gets cold, I won’t be able to do anything outside,” she says. “Now I’m doing YouTube tutorials, but it’s not sports. It’s boring as hell.
“At least with intramurals, I can come and go with friends. It was safe and fun and now it’s, like, iffy. I can’t go out alone when [the sun] starts to set, so I have to adjust my workday. The worst is feeling isolated and not seeing your friends.”
But she has no issues with Northeastern.
“I think it’s better to be safe than sorry," she says. "I have some friends down in Florida and it’s a hot mess, so I’m fine waiting it out.”
Northeastern officials say they are trying to accommodate students while keeping them safe.
“We just started offering group fitness classes that are in person — and outside,” says Amy Dean, associate director of university recreation.
The gym is now open, reservations required and equipment properly spaced out. ESports have been expanded online with more than a dozen offerings, including virtual chess.
At other colleges, all classes are virtual and campuses are deserted.
At UMass-Boston, the Clark Athletic Center has been converted to a COVID-19 testing center. At the entrance, a sign reads “Please blow your nose before entering.”
The basketball court, where a young LeBron James played summer ball in 2003, is partially covered with mats leading to a white tent pitched in the corner. Outside, the softball field has weeds invading the infield.
At Boston University, intramural sports used to attract 2,500-3,000 students. There were two divisions, one that was very competitive and one more recreational, with more giggles than goals.
“You’d get freshmen who would create teams from their floor,” says Ryan Parson, manager of BU intramural and club sports.
Now there are just 100 participants playing virtual eSports like Madden and NBA 2K.
Having no live intramural sports creates both mental and physical challenges, especially since the fitness center is currently open by appointment only.
“I think the mental is the harder part,” says Parsons. “The changes to your routine, not to be able to be on the field playing with your buddies.”
It’s hardest on incoming freshmen, he says.
“It’s definitely upsetting,” says Seamus Webster, a first-year student who was a Globe All-Star in football at Newburyport. “I feel like intramural is a great way to meet people when you first get to school. Now it makes it more challenging to be social.”
Webster is not looking for a tuition refund, though. Nor is he complaining.
“I am happy to be here," he says. “The fact that we’re able to be here — and it seems like we’ll be able to make it all the way through to December — I’m grateful for that.”
Webster is sitting outside his dorm reading Russian literature in the sunshine. He has one in-person class a week, which he savors, and the rest are on Zoom.
“It’s a bit of a grind,” he says. “It wears on you.”
Nor is he looking forward to winter.
“So we’ll see what the situation looks like second semester," he says, "whether it’s worth it to come to school and pay for housing. But if it’s going to be on Zoom, it just might not be worth it.”
At Brandeis, intramural sports coordinator Julie Mirzaji has responded to students looking to get out of their rooms. She has started socially distant, noncontact intramurals, including water pong, pickle ball, Kan Jam, triathlon, badminton, and a H.O.R.S.E. competition.
“I think this is a good Band-Aid,” says Mirzaji. “These are sports where they’re able to engage in competition, but it doesn’t replace the competition like football where you really have a team aspect of sports.”
She says it’s good to see smiles again, even behind masks.
“I think there’s definitely joy," she says. "We had table tennis the other day, and across the table, people are talking. They’re like, ‘Oh, what’s your major?’ And people want to meet new people. I think people are just grateful to have something to do that’s not virtual.”
On a recent weeknight at Gosman Gym, 10 masked participants show up to play the basketball shooting competition H.O.R.S.E. Players are assigned their own basketballs.
Among the participants is Natalie Iwaszkiewicz, a senior from Woodbridge, Conn., who played intramural flag football, volleyball, and basketball in previous years.
She says the pandemic is “heartbreaking,” but she is happy to be back on the court.
“H.O.R.S.E is a very lighthearted game compared to, like, everything else that’s going on in the world,” she says. “It’s a really nice break from your eyes on the screen, as well as all the news that’s going on.”
But she misses competing with her friends in person and the camaraderie.
Still, there are incentives. If they win, they get a champion T-shirt and their picture could appear on the Intramurals Wall of Fame and on social media.
“You get to see people really put their heart and soul into something," she says, "even though it’s for a T-shirt.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.