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The college basketball season is barreling toward disaster

As the coronavirus rips through teams, the NCAA should adjust its losing strategy

We should not be playing college basketball right now.

If we had our priorities straight, thousands of athletes would not be gathering on campuses and traveling the country while their classmates were sent home for their safety. If high-level college sports did not “preach education but vote money,” the games would pause until the coronavirus pandemic was no longer out of control.

Instead, with the season just two weeks old, the NCAA appears to be barreling toward disaster. The virus has already ripped through dozens of teams. College programs are burning through tens of thousands of tests while supermarket cashiers or postal workers search for a testing site where they don’t have to wait for hours. At least one college player has been diagnosed with a COVID-related heart condition. All while deaths reach record levels and health experts predict the worst is still to come.

Trying to track this season’s canceled games is like playing sudoku and whack-a-mole while juggling. No. 1 Gonzaga vs. No. 2 Baylor – poof. From Michigan State-Virginia to New Mexico State-Cal Poly, the games keep vanishing. DePaul has yet to play a game this season; Big East conference rival Xavier is 7-0. On the women’s side, Stanford’s coach Tara Vanderveer will have to wait for her record-tying 1,098th victory, and her top-ranked team is playing in Las Vegas due to health restrictions on their California campus. On Wednesday, 12 of the 65 scheduled men’s games, and 10 of 43 women’s games, did not happen.

Maybe those Ivy League eggheads were onto something when they canceled this season.

UCLA Bruins players on the bench wear masks during a Dec. 3 game at Pauley Pavilion.

Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

“We’re being advised by our government not to travel over the holidays, and yet these players are traveling,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said Tuesday while broadcasting the Duke-Illinois game from a Cameron Indoor Stadium devoid of Crazies. “There are a lot of questions that need to be asked and we have not had that national conversation, and that’s been a failure of leadership. It’s the NCAA, and all the different conferences.

“If people were deciding whether to start [the season] now, would we start now?” Bilas said. “I think the answer would be no.”

The NCAA’s head is buried in the sand because of money. The men’s basketball tournament generates more than $800 million each year, about half of which is distributed to member schools and conferences. That cash went up in smoke last March when the pandemic, which was just starting to unfold, shut down the country. Poor planning had depleted the NCAA’s rainy-day fund. Now, like a gambler after a bad beat, the NCAA is trying to recoup. And those of us watching college basketball on television are in some ways enabling the NCAA, because our eyeballs monetize their hypocrisy.

“The NCAA is worried about the endgame. They’re not as worried about the game we’re playing right now,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski while questioning the wisdom of the current course. (Some questioned whether Coach K’s willingness to pause the season was related to Duke’s 2-2 record after an 83-68 spanking by Illinois.)

The NCAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

The NCAA’s head is buried in the sand because of money.

When the NCAA decided in September to start the season just two weeks later than normal, on Nov. 25, the “winter surge” was more prediction than reality. Now we see its frightening face: more than 3,000 deaths reported in a single day for the first time, hospitals at or above capacity, widespread access to the vaccine still beyond our reach. Yet the games continue, because there is money to be made – except that the players who are risking their health can’t share it.

“I don’t think anyone can say anymore that these young men are amateurs,” Pittsburgh coach Jeff Capel said this week. “That’s out the window because they are not. They absolutely are not. They are laying it on the line to entertain people. Something doesn’t feel right about it right now.

“The numbers are where they were back in March,” Capel said. “I look at it every day. It seems like every day it’s getting worse. I don’t know why you cancel it in March, but you say it’s OK to do it now.”

There are 800 million reasons to play now. The NCAA says it will hold the tournament in one city, perhaps Indianapolis, in March 2021. With 68 teams competing, more than a thousand athletes, coaches and staff would convene from across the country. That’s a petri dish for the virus. Don’t forget what just transpired in “Bubbleville” at the Mohegan Sun casino complex in Connecticut – many of the 40 invited teams were not healthy enough to get in. North Carolina State made it through the door, then apparently caught the virus inside the so-called bubble and had to go home.

Another consideration is the possibility teams might conceal a positive test result that could kill their championship hopes. Many college football teams have refused to report how many of their players test positive. That’s a slippery slope and a short slide to a coach staring at his trainer and telling him, “That was a false positive, right?” If you think no basketball coach would play an asymptomatic star to reach the Final Four, you haven’t been paying attention.

As a die-hard hooper myself, I absolutely feel the pain of young athletes who want to compete. And as a parent of young athletes, I have experienced the agony during this pandemic of forbidding my children from playing our beloved game. But what is the long-term prognosis for Vanderbilt’s Demi Washington, who now has myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that can lead to a stroke or heart attack? Are there other players we don’t know about who are having serious complications? What if a kid dies? Of course they want to play, but educators have a responsibility to make tough decisions for the best interests of the students in their care.

“If we were playing outdoors and lightning was in the area,” Bilas said, “we wouldn’t canvass the players and ask if they want to play. We would say it’s too dangerous.”

Why not pause the season until March, play the conference schedules, then rock out with May Madness? Or maybe even call the whole season off, issue some NCAA Tournament Bonds to borrow against the 2022 extravaganza, and see what it would be like for athletes to just be students this winter? Surely it would fit within the mission of the NCAA, which declares itself “dedicated to the well-being and lifelong success of college athletes,” to allow players to spend a few months exploring academic interests without 30 to 40 hours a week of basketball.

There’s a lot of clock left in this pandemic, and right now the virus is running up the score. Let’s see if the NCAA will adjust – or stick with a losing strategy.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.