For the class of 2021 at the University of Oregon, word that their graduation this June would be entirely virtual was deflating, if not especially surprising.
But that disappointment quickly turned to frustration after news broke that just a week later, the International Olympic Track and Field Team Trials would continue as scheduled at the school’s freshly—and expensively—renovated Hayward Field.
The trials were originally scheduled for June 2020 in Eugene. TrackTown USA, a non-profit based in the city, has been planning for the high-profile event for years. As originally conceived, it was to have been an economic windfall for Eugene and the Willamette Valley, drawing hundreds of thousands of track fans and millions of dollars in revenue.
TrackTown’s administrators would not confirm to Portland Monthly that spectators will be allowed at this year’s trials. But tickets for the event are on sale now, via StubHub. After its $200 million renovation, Hayward Field now has seating for up to 25,000 fans, though the ticket site notes that all state and county-mandated public health protocols, including social distancing, will be enforced and supplies are limited.
“We are learning from the University of Oregon on what it takes to deliver and operate things safely,” says Michael Reilly, CEO of TrackTown. "We are a renter of University of Oregon facilities for the event and were bound by the terms the university spells out for us.”
Since last spring, the university and its students have transitioned to mostly remote learning, including setting up testing centers and cleaning stations around campus. First-year students living in dormitories must follow strict testing protocols and are contained in small rooms most days; they are required to wear face masks in common areas.
Morgan Leone, a senior at the university, says she’s upset that graduation is being canceled but that TrackTown USA is still a go. “If the university can work with the Olympic Trials to make it work for county health officials, I don’t know why they couldn’t do the same for graduation,” she says.
Leone created an online resources kit with a proposal on how graduation could be safe and in-person, including an email template laying out 12 campus locations that could play host to ceremonies, from Hayward Field to the lawn at the Knight Law Library, designed to be sent to campus higher-ups. On the first day her online resource launched, nearly 180 people tapped on the link, she says.
University officials wouldn’t comment to Portland Monthly on why they decided to cancel in-person graduation but are allowing the track event on university property a week later. Currently, Lane County is set to move to a “moderate” risk level on Friday, which would allow restaurants to reopen to indoor dining at 50 percent capacity, and would allow churches and other religious organizations to host outdoor services of up to 250 people. At that risk level, up to 150 people are allowed to be at an outdoor garden venue.
But there is precedent for sporting events continuing even amid the pandemic, including the Super Bowl, which was played in early February in front of a live audience. At the collegiate level, Division 1 football has been allowed to continue with games scheduled nearly every week since the beginning of March. More recently, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced that the Chicago Cubs and White Sox can play in front of fans again, though stadium capacity will be limited to 20 percent.
Closer to home, the University of Oregon’s basketball team returned to the court in November 2020, and athletes and coaches have traveled frequently for sporting events.
Justin Gallegos, a fifth-year student at UO who has cerebral palsy, says graduation is more than a ceremony because it’s a day meant to symbolize his achievements.
“Graduation means that I proved a lot of people wrong,” he says. “Growing up with a disability, people said I would be lucky if I even go to college. Graduating is going to be a huge accomplishment.”