Volleyball is the Grim Specter of Indoor Sports in the Pandemic

Volleyball is proving a distressing case study of a massive issue.

There is a reality that exists right now within the United States — land of the unchecked pandemic and home of the hundreds of thousands dead — where you can go inside a college or high school gym and watch people play volleyball. Not because you know any of them, or are working for the team, or even attend the same school they do, but just because you feel like it.

I had planned to transport myself to that reality from my own, a world where going inside a building with strangers, or even alongside friends, feels like an existential threat. It wouldn’t even require much effort, despite the seemingly epic gap I’d traverse; simply buy a ticket and show up. Or in my case, ask for a credential as an occasionally esteemed member of the press. 

No matter how religiously I wore my mask and how far I kept away from everyone else, it would be a risk. But it wasn’t meant to be fun, only some version of reporting on sports during COVID-19 – of course, though, it would be an illicit thrill to see live sports in person again, even in the riskiest possible context.

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It wasn’t to be: the match I planned on attending, TCU vs. Kansas, was postponed, as was TCU’s series vs. Texas the following week. Neither the school nor the conference offered any explanation, because they aren’t obliged to; “2020 has been a hard year to predict but we should be back in two weeks,” was all the athletic department’s communications staff could say.

In itself, the postponement of four TCU volleyball games is not newsworthy, which is exactly the problem. Volleyball is the only indoor sport happening on a large scale right now and the fallout may well be catastrophic, if the number of games being cryptically postponed both by the four DI conferences currently competing (ACC, Big 12, SEC and Sun Belt) and countless high schools around the country is any indication. There is simply no way to know for sure, because of both volleyball’s status as a minor sport played (in this country) mostly by girls and women — and the subsequent lack of coverage and attention it receives — and the fact that it’s one example of the hundreds of similar risks many Americans are taking daily, one facet of that reality where death is an acceptable consequence of being bored inside or feeling like a mask is too uncomfortable to wear.

What we can be certain about is that in 37 states, high schoolers are playing volleyball right now; in each of those states, teams have been quarantined and matches have been postponed. In many of them, spectators are allowed and COVID-19 safety regulations, if they exist, are lax. During the few weeks DI volleyball teams have competed, players in at least a dozen different programs have been exposed to the virus. Because the NCAA doesn’t require schools to disclose either their COVID-19 prevention plans or their positive tests, most of the evidence is limited to the “Postponed” designation that litters, for example, the Sun Belt conference’s season schedule

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It’s a distressing case study of a massive issue: how much COVID-19 spread is happening in environments where it could be easily forecast and might have been prevented — bars, restaurants, schools and more. But it also bodes poorly for basketball, a much higher revenue sport that is slated to begin in a few weeks. No one can argue that playing volleyball has been safe, but no one is paying attention to the fact that it isn’t.

All of this unnecessary danger exists because not enough people with the power to do so made the easy call: no volleyball this year, no indoor sports this year, no sports period this year. Because there is this second reality, where it’s every man for himself — where a microscopic organism might be bullied or intimidated — players are forced to choose between playing the sport they’ve dedicated their lives to at a possibly inconceivable cost, and letting their teams down to try to stay safe. That choice and the stress that comes with it now apparently has a name: “COVID-19 anxiety.”

That affliction, according to the Arizona Republic, is what made top-tier blocker Emma Gerstner not want to play volleyball for her high school this year. “I tried to convince my parents to not let me do it,” she told the paper. “I was so conflicted. I was crying a lot before volleyball. It was not something I wanted to do.”

Her coach purported to have the solution: 

“She was like, ‘I can’t do this.’ She was like, ‘I don’t want to hurt anyone or kill anyone with COVID, like my grandparents.’ “I was like, ‘It’s going to be OK. This is a good place for you. It’s going to get you out of the house. It’s going to get you moving. It’s going to get your mind somewhere else.’ It was very evident that it was anxiety to me.”

At the behest of her coach and her parents, she wound up playing. While children are being compelled to find answers to these impossible questions, those people who should be providing them have none: go to the NCAA website, and there is only information about how the rearranged schedule and its “unique opportunities” will impact the tournament — nothing about how players and staff will be kept safe. State athletic associations have been proven toothless in the face of irrational parents; conferences have mostly offered little more than a shrug. 

The people in charge have nothing meaningful to say, and for the most part, the people suffering don’t have a voice.