Why a Vanderbilt fan offered his women's basketball tickets to students after attendance ban
Murray Harris, a middle school teacher who is season ticket holder for Vanderbilt women's basketball, football and baseball, didn't see it as right that students were kept away from one of the biggest women's games of the year.
On Thursday, the Commodores face the rival Tennessee Lady Vols at Memorial Gymnasium for the first time under first-year coach Shea Ralph. As part of a mandated quarantine period upon return to campus, Vanderbilt students aren't allowed to attend sporting events — along with a host of other restrictions — until Jan. 24 due to COVID-19.
Last Saturday, after news of the Dec. 30 decision began to circulate on social media, Harris put out a tweet offering up women's basketball tickets to any student who wanted to attend the game.
Harris, who said that as of Wednesday morning he hadn't had any takers, thought that the restriction on student attendance didn't make sense given that students — like other fans who attend home games — have to be vaccinated and wear a mask.
"I just didn't understand the rationale, and so that frustrated me," Harris said. "The students, from what I've heard, they're paying a student activity fee. If they're not gonna let them go to these six games, I mean at least refund them some of that money. It's just frustrating. I know the student section, student support means a lot to Coach (Jerry) Stackhouse and Coach Ralph and all the student-athletes at the games, they work so hard and for the students not to be able to go, that stinks and I think the athletic events is something the students at Vanderbilt look forward to going to as far as their time away from studying and grinding in the classroom."
But there was more behind his reasoning to offer up tickets to the Tennessee game. Harris is from Cheatham County, from where legendary Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt hailed. Despite being a lifelong Vanderbilt fan, Harris saw firsthand the impact Summitt had on women's basketball and wanted to promote support of Ralph's team, given the way women's sports are so frequently overlooked. What better way to grow the game, he reasoned, than the rivalry game?
"This is a big in-state rivalry game, we haven't beaten the Lady Vols in three years and that win came in Knoxville ... and I just feel like it's important that we have the students there and we're trying to help grow the women's basketball fanbase because I feel like we hit a home run hiring Coach Ralph and her staff," Harris said. "We've seen improvement that the women's basketball team has made since she arrived on campus. ... I just want to support women's athletics in general. I just feel like there's not enough publicity for women's athletics whether it's high school, college or on the professional level."
When Ralph was asked about the restriction on student attendance, she offered support for whatever the administration thought would keep students safest. But she, too, urged fan attendance for her fledgling team.
"We want more people in the stands," she said after Thursday's SEC opener. "When COVID-19 is over, please come out and watch our team and cheer them on. It makes a big difference."
This year, the SEC women's tournament will be held at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. A mile and a half away, Ralph could be building something special. That's why this particular game was the one Harris selected to offer up his tickets to students.
At the same time Vanderbilt announced it required quarantine period, it also pushed back the start of the semester until Jan. 17 and the opening of dorms and Greek houses until Jan. 15. While some students who live off-campus or are based locally may already be back in Nashville, that fact already served as a barrier to attendance, even without the ban on students.
Students currently are not able to claim their student tickets, which are typically free, but it is unclear what would happen if a student purchased a regular ticket and attempted to attend a game. Vanderbilt's protocols state, "Any violations will be referred to the Office of Student Accountability, Community Standards and Academic Integrity, and swift action will be taken for any verified incidents of noncompliance," but did not lay out specific punishments.
Harris isn't worried about his public advocacy for student attendance, but wanted to speak out about a policy that didn't make sense.
"I just encourage any students who want to come to the game, as long as they don't get in trouble, I don't know what the consequences would be, I definitely want them to reach out to me," Harris said. "That way we get more fans tomorrow night in Memorial Gym for the game against the Lady Vols and just try to continue to grow the women's basketball fanbase and kind of go from there."