College Basketball Is A Tragic Example Of COVID-19 Mismanagement

It’s already a catastrophe, an outcome anyone who has even the broadest, most superficial understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic would find obvious.

For a while, there were no sports. It was sad, but logical — in the face of mass death and extreme uncertainty, playing sports simply couldn’t be a priority. Then, suddenly, there were all the sports, played with precautions of varying rigidity and thus, varying degrees of effectiveness. Athletes and unknown numbers of fans and staff and people adjacent to fans and staff got sick; some died, some may never recover fully

The process has mirrored pandemic denialism nationally: the lethal consequences of playing sports and living life as usual would seem to be inescapable, but somewhere along the line, a combination of political polarization and widely accepted misinformation and conspiracy theories has made millions of people eager to ignore those consequences.

Because of those people, and because of local, state and national governance that has perpetually prioritized saving businesses (and both amateur and professional athletics are businesses) over saving human lives, we’re still having sports: college basketball — the biggest, most lucrative amateur sport besides college football — begins today.

It’s already a catastrophe, an outcome anyone who has even the broadest, most superficial understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic would find obvious. The NCAA “was founded to keep college athletes safe,” according to its own website; yet the organization has almost completely abdicated responsibility as far as regulating its member institutions’ COVID-19 response, offering vague “guidance” on safety procedures but no mandate besides “adhere to federal, state and local guidelines” (although there don’t seem to be repercussions for failing to do that, either). Instead, it left the task of developing new regulations to each individual conference, and many of those individual conferences in turn passed the buck to their member schools

So another indoor sport is proceeding, during what will almost certainly be the worst domestic phase of the pandemic, without the kind of strict isolation and precautions that were required to keep NBA and WNBA players mostly safe. Many colleges insist that their players and staff are isolated, and thus effectively also in a “bubble” — but on the opening day of the season, dozens of teams are in quarantine because of positive tests. The futility of whatever quasi-isolation teams have come up with will soon be magnified as they begin traveling to compete against one another — a model that hasn’t worked at all in MLB and the NFL, or in other college sports.

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It’s self-evidently a terrible plan, and one that will impact the lives and families of players who are — it always bears repeating — not paid for their work. But if, for some reason, the logic of “a college basketball season is not worth even one severe illness or lost life, much less many” doesn’t appeal to you, medical professionals are available to reiterate that it should not be happening. 

“My thoughts are that it’s a horrible idea to play,” Dr. R. Dawn Comstock, an epidemiology professor at the Colorado School of Public Health, told the New York Post. “To put it real bluntly, with the dramatic increase that we’re seeing in COVID-19 rates across our nation right now, it’s nearly impossible for a college basketball season to move forward safely.”

But, as we have seen repeatedly over the course of the pandemic, no one with the power to do so will make the safest, most reasonable call. UConn men’s and women’s basketball teams, for example, have both already quarantined because of COVID-19 exposure and/or positive tests; yet Connecticut governor Ned Lamont declined to cancel collegiate and professional sports in the state while in quarantine because he tested positive for COVID-19. “Many, many, many of the infections are related to sports,” he told reporters of the state’s recent surge in COVID-19 cases; as a result, he has halted club and rec league sports, and school sports are postponed until mid-January. Even with plenty of evidence to the contrary, though, he insisted college sports are safe enough to continue.

The truth is that the repercussions of continuing this college basketball season are still impossible to know for sure; all we can be certain about is that the outcomes range from bad (players get sick and recover fully, minimally exposing more vulnerable populations) to a much more likely worse (players get sick and unknowingly infect more vulnerable people, who then die) to a pretty likely worst (players get sick and suffer lifelong side effects or die). Those certainties, though, are being framed by those with authority — coaches and administrators — as just more “adversity” to “overcome” during a “tough season,” instead of an extremely preventable tragedy. 

“Think of it as taking a flight,” NCAA basketball media coordinator David Worlock tweeted. “There will be screenings, delays and cancellations. Sometimes it will feel like you’re in the middle seat between 2 large men and behind the person who fully reclines their seat. But eventually we’ll reach our destination.” 

Yes, he drew a parallel between sitting in a middle seat and loss of life on a scale of which we have never seen; and no one will call him out on it because he handles the March Madness press credentials. Planes’ worth of people are dying daily, and rather than doing their part to save them, the NCAA wants you to sit back and enjoy the ride.

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