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Students storm field following Notre Dame’s historic victory over Clemson, eliciting mixed reactions

| Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Electric. Magical. Terrifying.

These are a few words students used to describe the storming of the field after Notre Dame football’s double-overtime victory over Clemson Saturday.

There was a tangible shift in the Stadium’s energy as the Irish settled for a game-tying play. Fans rushed to the first 15 or so rows of each designated student section. As the game entered one overtime after another, the excitement in the stadium grew.

When the final overtime went into the fourth down, Notre Dame senior Sophia Kartsonas pushed to the railing separating the seats from the field. Other students, she said, followed suit.

The University seemed to expect a rush of emotion at the game, hiring more ushers, event staff, police officers and private security guards, the New York Times reported, but they did little to stop the rush.

“What surprised me was that the ushers were telling people where to go and how to [get onto the field],” Kartsonas said. “I did think they would try to be stopping us, but people just started running and jumping off that ledge.”

And in moments, thousands of mostly masked students were celebrating on the field as the announcer attempted to get them to leave.

St. Joseph County deputy health officer Dr. Mark Fox noticed the “energy rising” from his station overlooking the student sections, he said in an email.

“On the one hand, I understood the energy and excitement and felt really helpless to do anything meaningful to override human nature,” Fox said. “The challenges of how to gather — whether to celebrate, protest or grieve — safely in the midst of a pandemic are difficult to manage.”

But in that moment, he said, health concerns for the crowd had to shift from coronavirus concerns to stopping students from getting crushed in the rush of a crowd. Fox also noted the undergraduate testing requirements during the week leading up to the game with the hopes of limiting COVID-19 transmission.

“While that decreases the risk, it doesn’t eliminate it. Having said that, while the storming the field incident raises some concern, based on the volume of people, the proximity and the hugging/high-fiving going on, there still were a number of people in masks and it was outdoors, in which most people had tested negative in the preceding week,” Fox said. “The bigger concern stems from the social gatherings that occurred this weekend with a night game and gorgeous weather. Saw lots of large crowds with few masks and likely people lingering even longer than they did on the field. Those gatherings pose substantially more risk than the field incident.”

The weekend’s social gatherings were the subject of a letter to the student body through which University President Fr. John Jenkins expressed his disappointment. The administration reinforced the importance of surveillance and exit testing, saying students cannot register for spring courses or leave campus if they miss either type of testing.

Students who do not follow the University’s health and safety guidelines for gatherings will face severe repercussions. Jenkins has requested to meet with students who live in the Legacy Village housing complex where some unsanctioned gatherings were held over the weekend, sources confirmed to The Observer.

The concern of increased transmission of COVID-19 at these gatherings led to a shift in Notre Dame’s exit testing schedule, Fox said, delaying the previously scheduled saliva exit tests.

“It was originally going to begin on [Monday], but given concerns about the risk of transmission from weekend events, and in an effort to keep the University community safe, as well as to reduce transmission to students’ home communities on departure, the decision was made to not initiate exit testing until later this week, in a time frame more likely to detect positives associated with exposures from this past weekend,” he said.

Notre Dame junior Duncan Donahue watched the events of the weekend unfold with fear and frustration. As someone with a history of respiratory illnesses, he found it disheartening that students chose to put themselves in a position that could aid in the transmission of COVID-19 throughout the tri-campus and South Bend communities.

“I understand why people stormed the field,” Donahue said. “I’ve been a little bit frustrated with people saying that they earned it because I don’t really feel like you can earn the right to put other people at risk in a deadly pandemic. Not only other students but also South Bend. While they were storming the field, South Bend hospitalizations were at an all-time high.”

Donahue said the administration’s public handling of this situation adds to other steps that have put students in harm’s way, such as the University’s spike in cases at the beginning of the semester and Jenkins’ appearance at the Rose Garden.

“Those sorts of things overshadow this one incident,” he said. “But at the same time, two wrongs don’t make a right when the two wrongs are compounding the same problem. I think there’s definitely room to say that the administration has handled COVID-19 in all these wrong ways, but that doesn’t mean storming the field is somehow right or justified.”

Saint Mary’s first-year Jesse Miller watched students take to the field from her position in the band section. She watched in confusion as students, some unmasked, stormed past the marching band and onto the field.

“I just kind of tried to ignore that that was going on because we just won,” she said. “I was like, ‘This is so great,’ but I couldn’t help but think there’s a pandemic going on.”

While Miller is happy Notre Dame won, she said she’s disappointed in students’ disregard for the coronavirus safety guidelines.

“There are people who saw that and that reflects negatively on Notre Dame itself,” Miller said. “It’s great that we beat Clemson but the fact that people were so negligent about the safety protocols and how they were just ignoring all the social distancing guidelines reflects badly on us as a community.”

Not one to typically disregard COVID-19 safety restrictions, Notre Dame senior Alexandra Champlin recognizes the risks associated with what happened at the game. But sharing a moment of joy with friends and fellow students outweighs any negative feelings she might have, she said.

“I needed this sign of hope to change my perspective not only on this year, but also my future outlook, being able to recognize the positive things of 2020,” Champlin said. “I had a sense of how desperately I needed a positive event like that, but I still cry when I watch the clip. From that perspective, there was a clear health need in a way.”

She said she finds comfort in knowing that she and many others had tested negative prior to the event and everyone she saw was wearing a mask. Still, Champlin plans to stay away from people this week just in case.

Similarly, Notre Dame senior Jacob Plocher said everyone he encountered on the field was wearing a mask and did their best to maintain some sort of distance while gathered, limiting prolonged contact with anyone outside of his friends.

“It was something that us as students really kind of needed, that chance to have all of the problems and the worries and the stresses of the semester dissipate for a moment and just run full speed on one of the most historic, iconic football stadiums in the country,” he said.

Plocher said that though rushing the field ran the risk of spreading the coronavirus, he trusts that many potential positive cases were caught in the prior week’s testing and that the administration will handle whatever may happen before the semester ends.

“It was something that’s just unforgettable,” he said. “The location being Notre Dame with the best college football program in the country and then having your friends arm-and-arm is perfect.”

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About Maria Leontaras

Maria Leontaras is a senior at Saint Mary's pursuing a student-designed major in Interactive Journalism with minors in mathematics and Journalism, Ethics and Democracy. Maria used to serve as the Editor-in-Chief of The Observer when she wasn't busy tweeting about movies and One Direction.

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