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Cancellation of seasons, COVID-19 force MEAC into uncharted territory

Instead of celebrating its 50th year as a conference, schools continue to opt out of competition

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) commissioner Dennis Thomas longs for the days when taking a phone call led to the scheduling of a business lunch or a meeting. Unfortunately, a ringing phone these days often leads to an increased level of tension.

“If the wrong number pops up, I get anxious,” Thomas said. “With every phone call, you’re hoping it’s not about the cancellation of games or someone coming back with a positive test.”

The 2019-20 college basketball season came to an abrupt halt in March as COVID-19 cases ignited across the country, leading to the cancellation of March Madness. The 2020-21 college basketball season gets underway this week at a time when the virus is ablaze around the globe, leading many to wonder if the intended goal of reaching the NCAA tournament is realistic.

Two schools in the MEAC, Bethune-Cookman and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, have opted out of all sports this school year. A third school, Florida A&M, which along with Bethune-Cookman is leaving the MEAC after this season, has opted out of several sports, including women’s basketball and football.

With North Carolina A&T announcing in February that it would move to the Big South after this season, the MEAC is suddenly in need of replacements to maintain the league’s viability.

So as the MEAC enters its 50th year, the uncertainty of what’s ahead this basketball season has resulted in a year filled more with consternation than celebration.

“You have a nor’easter, and it hits and moves on,” Thomas said. “This pandemic is everywhere, in all the states and all over the world and it’s been sitting here since March. It’s unlike anything we’ve been through, and there’s nothing else any of us have been through to compare what’s happening.”

The virus has proven to be deadly: As of Monday there were 258,675 deaths in this country, with 85,836 people in hospitals. The virus has also proven to have varied impact on those stricken: Some people remain asymptomatic while others encounter debilitating aftereffects.

While a football coach like Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has expressed a willingness to take the field with players exposed to a COVID-19-positive teammate – leading to the postponement of the game Nov. 21 at Florida State – Thomas remains adamant that no student-athletes in the MEAC are put at risk.

“We don’t know what the future holds,” Thomas said. “But I do know this: The pandemic will have the final say on whether or not we start any season, or finish any season.”

Besides following NCAA COVID-19 guidelines, basketball players and team personnel are tested regularly each week.

“We get tested three days a week — Monday, Wednesday and Friday — and each day we take a PCR test and a rapid test,” said Kenny Blakeney, the head coach of the Howard men’s basketball team. “So we get six test results each week, and our guys have been great and diligent where we can move forward as if things are normal.”

The new normal has players and coaches with masks and hand sanitizer used constantly during practices. The players and the entire student body at Howard attend classes virtually to minimize risks.

“I haven’t stepped foot into my office since we left for the MEAC tournament in March,” Blakeney said. “My routine now is drive my car right to the gym, change clothes at the table, and then go right home. The routine is different and unique.”

Howard begins its men’s basketball season Thursday in the 2020 DC Paradise Jam, a tournament relocated to the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington from its original home in the Virgin Islands. Teams began entering a bubble in a Washington hotel Tuesday, and will remain there until the conclusion of the tournament Friday.

Greg O’Dell, the chief executive officer of Events DC, said that safety protocols include testing before arriving in Washington, and daily testing upon entry into the bubble. There will be no fans and no media at the event.

“We have all types of technology from temperature scanners to thermal scanning of the facility,” O’Dell said. “Part of the challenge was working within the public guidelines in D.C., which limited the number of teams or where those teams could come from. That was a challenge, as well as getting comfortable with the facility and infrastructure we had in place.”

Add the challenge of possible cancellations: On Tuesday, Northeastern University, one of the four teams in the tournament, pulled out after a small cluster of cases led to the cancellation of all winter sports through Dec. 18.

“We’ve done the right thing to prepare to host this event and to make everyone feel comfortable and safe,” O’Dell said of the cancellation. “I feel hopeful the tournament will still happen, but I recognize the times we are in.”

For Thomas, he recognizes the most important task at hand.

“Keep our student-athletes safe,” he said. “That’s the top priority.”

Jerry Bembry is a senior writer at Andscape. His bucket list items include being serenaded by Lizz Wright and watching the Knicks play a MEANINGFUL NBA game in June.