NCAA college basketball returns despite raging pandemic

Since the conclusion of the National Basketball Association (NBA) bubble in October, fans have been craving more of the sport amidst the stay-at-home orders, advisory warnings and quarantines that have become so normalized in recent months. Despite cases of the coronavirus roaring at all-time highs across the country, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has resumed play at the Division I level as student-athletes took the floor for the first time this season during the week of the Thanksgiving holiday.

However, returning to play comes at a devastating cost, as the potential for spreading COVID-19 is not absent when it comes to competing in high-level sports. In fact, playing basketball—an activity that requires close physical contact, the exchanging of sweat, sharing equipment and occupying a confined, indoor space—is not the most coronavirus-friendly option at hand. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlights that “full competition between teams from different geographic areas” poses the highest risk for transmission, which is exactly what the NCAA is allowing to occur at the moment.

In Oklahoma alone, three out of its six Division I basketball teams—including the Oklahoma State Cowgirls, as well as both of the men’s and women’s programs at the University of Oklahoma—have either postponed or canceled upcoming competition due to positive tests of either players and/or staff. According to a tweet from the University of Tennessee Knoxville, similar occurrences have happened to the Tennessee men’s team, as head coach Rick Barnes’s positive test led to a pause in activities, and the eventual cancellation of their annual Volunteer Classic multi-team event. Most recently, the men’s programs at both Wake Forest and the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) have either paused team activities or postponed games “out of an abundance of caution,” according to official press releases from each team.

Although some programs, like those mentioned above, have taken action to stop practices, travel and games in an effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, others have done just the opposite. According to an article from USA Today, the No. 2-ranked Bulldogs from Gonzaga University continued play in their season opener against the No. 5-ranked University of Kansas, despite a traveling staff member testing positive for the coronavirus. 

The team then made its way down to Florida for the Fort Myers Tip-Off Classic, taking on Auburn University despite seeing a positive test result from one player and deeming another as a close contact. The university issued a statement saying, “following yesterday’s game, two Gonzaga student-athletes are out today per tournament guidelines and COVID-19 protocols.” Apparently, this did not halt competition later that day, as the statement continued with, “after the Florida Department of Health independently conducted its contact tracing measures, the two individuals are isolating in their hotel rooms and the medical staffs of all four participating schools deemed today’s games can be played.”

After the game, Bruce Pearl, the Head Coach of the Auburn Tigers, spoke to reporters from the New York Post and said, “I’m glad we got the game in and I hope nobody gets infected by it.” 

At this point in time, with 13.6 million cases nationwide and nearly 270 thousand deaths, “hoping nobody gets infected by it” is simply not enough. If we want life to eventually resume as normal, we must stop and take a moment to reevaluate what is important, necessary and needed right now. For some collegiate athletes, the pressure and stress relief that is granted by playing sports is ever-pressing after months of separation from coaches, teammates and simple face-to-face interaction. However, on the other hand, physical lives are at stake each time such gatherings happen, and the chance of spread only increases with travel and inter-squad competition. This fine line is walked each and every day by university administrators and athletics departments, who are supposedly responsible for protecting the health and safety of their students. 

At what point will we deem containing the spread as more important than playing basketball games? At what point will we value the health and safety of student-athletes, coaches and other staff over continuing with competition? What will it take for us as a society to put our social and professional lives on hold in an effort to protect the well-being of those around us?

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