While COVID-19 continues to infect players, schools are acting as if the pandemic isn’t happening.
NCAA athletics has turned into America’s dysfunction, personified. Fans of college football and basketball have woken to news of key matchups being canceled weekly – most notably the Gonzaga- Baylor basketball game and the Clemson–Florida State football game. Both games were called because players and personnel tested positive for the coronavirus the day before. The Clemson matchup was one of over 140 games that had to be canceled or postponed this season due to COVID-19.
And here’s the pièce de résistance; Clemson officials still wanted to play the game despite the Tigers having practiced and then traveled to Tallahassee, Florida with a player who turned out to have the virus a week prior.
If there’s one thing Twitter showed us in 2020, it is that those who are adamant about their right to behave recklessly often criticize others for paying attention to public health. Clemson mirrored that oh-so disheartening trend.
Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley entered the chat first, mocking Florida State on Twitter.
This resulted in Clemson’s coach, Dabo Swinney, unloading on Florida State, accusing them of ducking his team.
“This game was not canceled because of covid,” Swinney said to reporters. “Covid was just an excuse to cancel the game. I have no doubt their players wanted to play and would have played. And same with the coaches. To me, the Florida State administration forfeited the game.”
Banter aside, NCAA athletics is in the middle of a COVID-19 crisis, and the prevailing attitude seems to be a Mariah Carey shrug.
Since early November, the number of games postponed or canceled each week is in the double digits. The pandemic has compromised even some games that were played as scheduled. The University of Southern California women’s basketball team was able to play their scheduled opening games but had to do so with a seven-man roster due to COVID-19. UCLA’s opening games, however, were postponed due to COVID-19.
UCLA leading scorer, Charisma Osbourne, said that she tries to just stay ready while staying flexible.
“The whole year has forced us to be flexible on and off the court,” Osbourne told ZUMedia. “One minute we’re prepping for a game, the next we’re told that we aren’t playing for another two weeks. It’s stressful, but at the same time, you’re kind of prepared. There’s a sense of pride knowing that your craft is essential for your university to the point that you have to play through a pandemic. Knowing that, and having love for the game, keeps me and my teammates ready.”
While Osbourne’s mindset is noble and definitely a reason she is the leading scorer for a top-15 ranked program, the idea that student-athletes are essential workers is the very arrow in NCAA’s Achilles. Athletes are not paid workers, nor are they professionals being paid large sums to risk their health for profit. Coach Mike Krzyzewski of Duke unloaded on this sentiment.
“I don’t think it feels right to anybody,” Krzyzewski, who is college basketball’s all-time leader in career victories, told reporters. “I’m not sure who leads college basketball, you know. It’s done by committee. You have [an] oversight committee, and anything that’s led by this committee is not agile in handling a situation. And so we made an assessment, and there was a consensus. It wasn’t well planned that we’re going to start November 25.”
“Basically, it was more of a mentality of, ‘Get as many games in as possible.’ And I think I would like, just for their safety, to assess the mental health and the physical health of our players and staff to see where we’re at.”
As the United States sets new records for coronavirus infections day after day, America as a whole is assessing where it’s at. States, including California, have reinstated stay-at-home orders while traveling across state lines is still not recommended. Considering the state of the country as well as the soaring positive tests within these programs, college athletics – particularly college basketball – may not get to the end of their respective seasons.
Before the season began, those who championed the return of college athletics argued that having players return to their team was a safer option than having them sit at home.
Alabama coach Nick Saban told ESPN, “I want [our team] to play, but I want to play for the players’ sake, the value they can create for themselves. I know I’ll be criticized no matter what I say, that I don’t care about player safety. Look, players are a lot safer with us than they are running around at home.”
Saban maintained that his team’s test-positivity rate – an indicator of whether the virus is spreading undetected within a community – was lower than that of society at large. “We act like these guys can’t get this unless they play football. They can get it anywhere, whether they’re in a bar or just hanging out.”
Fast forward and Saban himself has tested positive for the virus not once, but twice.
I asked Osbourne if she felt safe traveling and playing college basketball in the current state of America. She paused for a moment and shrugged.
“I think our playing is giving the nation a sense of normalcy and comfort,” Osbourne said. “I’m proud that I am able to represent my university and home city of Los Angeles during these times, and honestly it may not be the safest, but it’s bringing joy to others which is comforting to me.”
A serious question: As the virus runs rampant on college campuses and throughout society, and the list of called-off games grows, do college athletics feel safe right now?
Despite missing some games this season after testing positive for COVID-19, Trevor Lawrence remains a Heisman Trophy candidate and Clemson’s national championship hopes are still intact. The highly anticipated college basketball freshman class have dazzled fans across the country, despite some of their games being canceled.
But does this matter? Does entertainment trump the risk of young lives who aren’t directly being compensated?
No one should take these athletes’ perseverance through a pandemic as validation that NCAA’s higher-ups were right to let the show go on. Even if the season is somehow completed and fans get college football playoffs and March Madness, the willingness to just turn a blind eye to the state of sports, as well as America, is an indictment of the NCAA’s priorities.
Similar to how the United States government left COVID-19 responses up to individual states, the NCAA never instituted a broad, comprehensive plan for safely returning to play. Instead, the governing body for college sports offered mere suggestions and left individual conferences on their own.
In the spirit of Clemson’s Dabo Swiney, the association dodged the smoke of making a call. That call was left in the hands of each university’s president. Considering that schools have generally become dependent on the income generated by college athletics – especially that of DI football and basketball which generate millions in television revenue – presidents calling a no-go for sports was highly unlikely and clearly didn’t happen.
Look at Notre Dame University’s president, Reverend John Jenkins, for example. Back in May, the great reverend wrote a passionate op-ed for The New York Times explaining why he wanted his university to return to on-campus classes and athletic competition.
Jenkins wrote: We are in our society regularly willing to take on ourselves or impose on others risks – even lethal risks – for the good of society. We send off young men and women to war to defend the security of our nation knowing that many will not return. We applaud medical professionals who risk their health to provide care to the sick and suffering. We each accept the risk of a fatal traffic accident when we get in our car. The pivotal question for us individually and as a society is not whether we should take risks, but what risks are acceptable and why.
What unfortunately didn’t make it into Jenkins’ passionate plea is that, according to Forbes, Notre Dame is the eighth-most valuable college football team in the country. The program has averaged about $120 million in revenue in the past three years.
To note, Jenkins tested positive for the coronavirus after attending the White House reception for eventual Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who is a Notre Dame alumni. Jenkins did not wear a mask at an event that turned out to be a super spreader, understandably infuriating Notre Dame students and faculty. To compound the irony of it all, Jenkins then attempted to lecture the student body for rushing the football field after Notre Dame beat Clemson in November. Granted his words had very little effect, but the entire scenario epitomized the very chaos that the NCAA’s COVID-19 response has been.
History will not look back on this season and give the NCAA governing body a pat on the back for pushing through a pandemic and recklessly jeopardizing the safety of unpaid players. Instead, history will ponder over whether this cluttered, chaotic and cancellation-themed season was worth it.