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Covid Has Made Basketball Season A Mess

It’s either one to remember or one to forget. Too soon to tell

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Notre Dame
Dec 16, 2020; South Bend, Indiana, USA; NCAA referee Mike Stephens wears a face mask which allows the use of a whistle during a game between the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and the Duke Blue Devils at the Purcell Pavilion. 
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Based on all available evidence you might conclude NCAA decision-makers don’t care all that much about the athletes, make that student-athletes, over whom they hold sway. Many leaders most certainly do care. They just operate within a range of imperatives and suppositions that outsiders may find difficult to fathom.

Or, in many cases, easy to fathom but difficult to swallow.

At the edges of the college sports universe, teams and leagues have shut down their seasons in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile at the heart of competitive power, to give one prominent example, there’s the ACC and its men’s basketball teams. The virus has forced the conference to cancel 14 games, postpone 19, and reshuffle matchups with 18 nonconference opponents in the first six weeks of the 2020-21 season. (A few postponed games, as Gardner-Webb at FSU, were rescheduled.)

Last fall we watched with a mixture of awe, surprise and admiration as the Pac-12 and Big Ten decided to forgo their football seasons due to strong indications the raging pandemic was — guess what? — actually injurious to health. Then we watched with awe, lack of surprise, and consternation as the two power leagues reversed field and kicked off to placate fans and state legislators and to prevent the ACC, Big 12 and SEC from cashing in without them.

Now the conundrum is what to do about basketball.

The Duke women embraced a bold solution, voting to cancel their season. “We are in a pandemic STILL because not enough people are taking it serious (sic),” explained player Jade Williams, a senior psychology major. “Basketball players are not just entertainment.” A persistent minority of university leaders have been arguing for that less exploitive orientation since William Friday, a clear-eyed president of the UNC system and reform advocate, Frank Porter Graham and proponents of the mid-20th century “Sanity Code” tried to rein in athletics.

Right now, as noted a few weeks back by Mike Krzyzewski, college leaders confront what to do about the stuttering regular season, lead-in to the national Division I tournament the NCAA depends upon to generate most of its revenue and claims of relevance. The HQ marketing folks at Indianapolis already have applied to trademark “Mask Madness” as a fall-back substitute for the familiar but time-bound “March Madness”.

Money Madness might be more appropriate.

And the games sputter on, falling prey to individual testing that reveals the presence of COVID in team retinues, causing delays, reshuffles, postponements, cancellations, rescheduling. Several ACC programs have shut down for extended periods, only to resume play. By Jan. 2 North Carolina had played 10 times, Wake Forest three.

Since late November, ACC men have canceled or postponed 34 contests, most recently Duke at Florida State and Virginia Tech at Virginia, two of the league’s most hardfought rivalries. About half of the postponed dates were played later.

Among basketball’s charms as a spectator sport is that it’s played when weather is colder, darkness lasts longer and we tend to be indoors, anyway. But this late-fall and winter have been swamped by Covid-19, exacerbated by heedless travel and selfish celebrations around Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. That on top of an infection rate in the tens of thousands daily in the U.S. alone and feckless federal leadership in curtailing, let alone acknowledging, the virus.

It’s hardly a unique viewpoint to suggest that rather than have a premier league like the ACC bump, cancel and switch dozens of games, it’s time to regroup. (Depending on the source, some games are listed as postponed, others as canceled. If it’s not a rivalry game such as Clemson-South Carolina, it’s probably canceled if it hasn’t been played by now.)

NCAA leaders, administrative and medical, and select athletes need to discuss and sort options – publicly. And players need to follow the example of Duke’s women and protect their own interests if their supposed guardians won’t.

Everyone should consider taking a break, like a water-averse pedestrian waiting under shelter for a downpour to abate, before players and often-maskless coaches resume breathing on, shouting at, and bumping and prodding each other on the court.

Go ahead, NCAA. Secure the rights to Marketable Madness. Then punt, buying time until you can reschedule a playoff to be named later.

ACC Schedule Changes in 2020-21 Season Due To Covid-19 Cases, Through Jan. 2
(Some Games With Non-ACC Teams Rescheduled, Others Added)
School Cancelled (14) Postponed (19) Reset, Added Outside ACC (18)
BC California Maine
Clemson South Carolina
Duke Elon
Chas Southern
Pitt Florida State
Fla.St. Duke Gardner-Webb
GaTech UAB
Louisville UNCG NC State Evansville
Miami Stetson
NC Syracuse NC Central
NC State FAU
William & Mary
St. Louis
Louisville UMass Lowell
NDame Syracuse
Detroit Mercy
Pitt Duke
Notre Dame
No. Illinois
Syracuse Notre Dame
North Carolina
Wake Forest
Virginia Michigan St. Wake Forest
Virginia Tech
Towson San
William & Mary
VaTech Virginia Villanova
Wake Troy
Virginia Catawba