The Cost of College Basketball in a Pandemic

Duke Women's basketball has cancelled the season amid Covid concerns

“I don’t think we should be playing right now. That’s my opinion on it,” first year Duke head women’s basketball coach Kara Lawson said back in December, a few weeks before her team — at the behest of its players — cancelled the rest of its season due to concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Lawson is one of very few coaches at any level who has said what one would hope for: That the unprecedented, lethal, highly contagious virus humanity is currently battling makes sports a clear and obvious danger; that sports are not strictly necessary and thus not worth the risk of endangering more people. 

She made that statement after the Blue Devils lost to Louisville, two days before Louisville went “on pause” — in the current parlance favored by athletic department PR  — due to positive tests within its women’s basketball program on December 11, 2020. Duke also went “on pause” to quarantine once those positive test results were reported, but by Dec. 16, they had their own positive test results to contend with. That loss, the fourth game of the 2020-2021 season, wound up being the last time the team would step on the court.

That timeline is a clear illustration of exactly what Lawson was anticipating, and it’s just one of dozens of identical cases — identical except for the fact that until this week, Duke was the only Power Five basketball team, men’s or women’s, to cancel their season. On Thursday, Tina Thompson announced that the Virginia women’s basketball team would not continue to compete this season “due to health and safety concerns.” Programs are (as has been reiterated frequently within this column) not required to disclose when players test positive, but Virginia’s last six games had been postponed due to either UVA or their opponents being in COVID-19 protocols, and two more upcoming match-ups were initially postponed before Thompson’s announcement. 

“I don’t think we should be playing right now. That’s my opinion on it,”

These perpetual postponements aren’t unique to Virginia and Duke. Every single one of the teams currently ranked in the AP poll’s top 10 has had games moved or canceled as a result of COVID-19 protocols; five have had COVID-19 cases within what is being referred to as “Tier One” of their programs — players, coaches and team staff. That is, using what I realize are the roughest possible statistics, a 50% positivity rate among the best women’s college basketball teams in the country.

The pandemic has meant some of the season’s most anticipated marquee match-ups simply haven’t happened: Baylor-UConn, for example, was canceled after Baylor coach Kim Mulkey tested positive for COVID-19. This Sunday’s game between no. 2 N.C. State and no. 3 Louisville has been postponed due to N.C. State being “on pause” because of positive tests within the program.

None of this is surprising. Kara Lawson knew it, anyone with the ability to put two and two together knew it. The fact that college sports were happening was preposterous as soon as the plans to have athletes take remote classes but show up for in-person practices were announced. We still don’t have a real sense of the damage that moving forward with the college basketball season has caused; we do know that at least one women’s college basketball player, Vanderbilt’s Demi Washington, has been diagnosed with myocarditis as a result of COVID-19 and doesn’t know when she’ll play again. 

The NCAA and its affiliate institutions have determined that her health and that of players like her is a price worth paying for whatever kind of continuity this is. The kind of continuity that’s already getting framed as persistence through some too-unsavory-to-discuss adversity instead of the wholly unnecessary clusterfuck that it is. The kind of continuity that hinges on making common sense sound like weakness, that relies on the eagerness and hard work of young people to mask just how ugly its machinations truly are.

The question, then, isn’t, “Why did these programs stop playing as other college basketball teams continue?” It’s “Why is the impetus to make the safe, responsible choice coming from below, rather than above?” It’s “Why, when it comes from above, as in the case of schools like no. 1-ranked Stanford, are those teams allowed to then circumvent local mandates by relocating to places with less stringent regulations?” It’s “How many lives are being lost because of this total failure of leadership?” — of course, the question that can basically be asked of every facet of American life. 

It’s unclear whether or not, as new COVID-19 records are made daily and the NCAA tournament approaches, any more teams will cancel their seasons. It does seem, though, that moves to halt team operations will likely come from the players themselves — the people with the least power, the people taking on the most risk. 

“We together as a team decided to opt out of our season,” Duke’s Jade Williams tweeted the day after Duke announced that their season was canceled. “We are in a pandemic STILL because not enough people are taking it serious. Basketball players are not just entertainment. There shouldn’t be casual attitudes about COVID now a year in.”

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