It would be nice if the three busiest words in sports in 2020 were a familiar announcer’s play call, such as Mike Breen’s “Puts it in!” from NBA games or Tim Brando’s “Iron is unkind” on college hoops. It might even be tolerable if we heard too much about the “New England Patriots.”
Instead, the three words that have been worn out are these: Shut it down.
That has been the too-common response to every obstacle faced by those in charge of visible sporting entities in the year of COVID-19. And we’re hearing it again, in an amended fashion, now that a significant number of college basketball games have been scuttled by ESPN’s decision not to stage the multi-team tournaments it owns.
Now it’s “conference-only games.”
Different verbiage. Same attitude.
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When Major League Baseball encountered coronavirus outbreaks among the Marlins and Cardinals within the first few weeks of opening its season during the summer, there were widespread shouts to “shut it down.” When college football teams began seeing dozens of games postponed, starting Sept. 5 with the game between Louisiana-Monroe and Troy, we heard it again. And, of course, that flooded through the Twittersphere when we learned on Oct. 1 that the Tennessee Titans would have to postpone a game against the Steelers. Because everything is bigger in the NFL.
Thing is: The baseball season that should have been abandoned months ago will end either Tuesday or Wednesday with the final out of the 2020 World Series. The college football season that should have been abandoned now has been joined by the Big Ten Conference, with the Pac-12 coming on board in a couple of weeks. The NFL season that should have been abandoned just completed its seventh week, which included that elusive Steelers-Titans game. And it was a thriller.
ESPN’s decision to abandon the eight events it planned to stage in an Orlando “bubble” environment similar to the one in place for the resumption of the NBA season was foreshadowed by Matt Norlander of CBS Sports in a Twitter thread late Sunday and reported Monday by Seth Davis of The Athletic. ESPN later confirmed with this statement: “ESPN Events set out to create a protected environment for teams to participate in early-season events in Orlando. Based on certain challenges surrounding testing protocols, we opted to resume these tournaments during the 2021-22 season.”
ESPN makes money on college basketball, but it did not wish to assume the risk in this case. That was its prerogative. That left dozens of teams that had expected these events to be part of their current schedules to scramble for alternative arrangements. It is possible that the Champions Classic and Jimmy V Classic doubleheaders may yet find a home other than Orlando, but there is no doubt that this was a blow to a sport that already seems to be running late given the planned Nov. 25 start to the season.
Much of the blame for the collapse of these tournaments is being placed on the Big 12 and SEC, which reportedly declined to agree to COVID testing protocols that would have required any athlete who had tested positive 90 days or more prior to the event be re-tested in order to enter the bubble.
On its face, this seems a preposterous approach.
They wouldn’t do it to save money. The number of players who have tested positive is just a percentage of the entire group. The savings over not testing them again couldn’t amount to more than a few bucks.
So what could it be? Consider this: College basketball’s season will launch more than eight months after the start of the pandemic. The scientific community still is evolving in its knowledge of the virus, and there is concern by some epidemiologists that those who’ve had it could produce positives tests long after they contracted it, recovered and no longer are shedding virus. Most in the fall sports that are operating did not have to confront this issue.
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Why not just continue testing those athletes along with all the other players in order to indicate a subsequent positive is an anomaly? Because these tests are not for informational purposes only. In a pandemic environment, involving one of the most contagious diseases of our lifetimes, a positive test has consequences. The results must be reported to governmental health authorities. Those who test positive generally need to be quarantined.
If such a positive test would have occurred for an athlete after arriving in Orlando, he might have needed to be isolated — even if he did not need to be isolated.
That these concerns developed, that we still do not have a comprehensive schedule less than a month out from the start of the season — these are not indications that college basketball lacks leadership. That we have an assigned start date, an amended schedule limit and the possibility of interconference play are all proof of the leadership that took place in the months leading up to NCAA vice president Dan Gavitt’s Sept. 16 announcement that the season could start Nov. 25 and contain 27 games.
Certainly it would be more convenient merely to arrange conference games. And for those that choose that direction, it’s a viable decision. The elimination of non-league play, though, complicates the NCAA Tournament selection process in ways most competitors — specifically, most high-major coaches — would not prefer. There is no way for the NCAA primary metric, the NET, to provide accurate information about the relative value of teams if all teams are restricted to conference play.
Playing strictly conference games is not inherently safer, unless those games are wrapped inside a bubble similar to those employed by the NBA or NHL. It may be the favored approach of some college basketball leagues, and it may be the only way some can afford to achieve a representative conference schedule. And that’s fine.
But to suggest that the complications that develop when different leagues follow different medical advice make it necessary to abandon the entire enterprise is the same defeatist approach that has been steamrolled by every sports competition that has resumed competition.
Safety is an indispensable consideration for those competing amid the pandemic. It is not optional. Convenience, though, is no more than a convenience.