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College basketball needs a plan… Now

Back in March — a phrase I’ve said more times than I’d like to count in recent weeks — most of us didn’t (couldn’t) grasp the effect the coronavirus would still have nearly six months later. For as much as we’ve all muttered the word “unprecedented” in the past few months, it was still impossible to conceptualize how many facets of our everyday lives would be uprooted by this disease. Alas, we’re into mid-August now, and the virus is still, for the most part, in control. Regardless of your personal beliefs, it’s clear the coronavirus is still running the show.

Back in March, we were devastated when the SEC Tournament quickly shuffled through headlines: first, no fans; then, no basketball at all. The NCAA tournament wasn’t far behind. It was simply  moving too fast to feel real. At that time, I was still attending my in-person classes and preparing for graduation at the University of Kentucky; I still had a spring break trip to Mexico booked for the following week. When the SEC Tournament came into question, other questions came to my mind. Should I opt to take this midterm exam online? Should I cancel my upcoming trip to Mexico I’ve worked hard to afford? In the end, I did both out of an abundance of caution and my general but growing feeling of uncertainty toward the future and what it might hold.

Back in March, we were truly living one day at a time. Will the SEC Tournament survive today? Will the NCAA Tournament survive tomorrow? Will I be watching all of this go down from Mexico? Eventually, we got our answers.

No. No. And no.

Back in March, we didn’t have the answers. For many questions, we still don’t. But in terms of the bare minimum, we are beginning to understand what’s going to be necessary if we expect sports to continue in 2020 and, let’s be real, probably even into 2021. In America, the NWSL figured it out first. Soon after, the NBA followed suit. Sure, it’s required a lot of money — regular tests for team personnel coupled with an unending supply hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes and face masks hasn’t been cheap.

But these leagues didn’t simply throw money (in the NBA’s case, reportedly 180-million-dollars worth of money) at the problem. Creating a safe environment also required planning. Like most major accomplishments in the sports world, it required teamwork. It required creativity (hey — why don’t we do this in Disney World?), it required a certain expectation of flexibility and a sense of humanity. Last but not least, it required a little bit of elbow grease.

And then it worked. Today there were once again zero confirmed cases of coronavirus inside the NBA’s Orlando bubble. It barely made the news because it’s happened so many times already. This was the fourth consecutive week without a positive test.

Speaking broadly, the logistics had to have been a nightmare. League commissioner Adam Silver and an enormous staff ironed out the details anyway. It wasn’t a quick process, either.

The NBA Board of Governors initially approved resuming the season on June 4. The NBAPA approved negotiations with the league on June 5. By June 16, the medical protocols had been outlined and approved. We mocked the 113-page rulebook (no doubles ping pong! A tip line for the bubble’s rule-breakers and snitches!), but the details were all there. The NBA had done what was considered unthinkable “back in March” — they’d answered the questions.

College football? Not so much.

Of course it’s different with amateur athletes. Of course it’s different with 100-player teams vs. 17-player teams. But what isn’t different is what’s generally required — money, yes, but also the time, effort and teamwork other leagues have showcased. That’s harder with college sports, especially when the NCAA has basically buried its head in the sand for the past several days — has anyone seen Mark Emmert, by the way?

Regardless, college football’s fate feels rushed. One day, leagues are announcing their schedules for the upcoming, conference-only season. Just days later, the whole season is in peril for multiple conferences? The Big Ten maintained their first game of the season would be played on Sept. 5 (and not Sept. 26, like the SEC), until they officially called the whole thing off on Aug. 11.

It feels uncoordinated. The Power Five suddenly became the Power Three. Reports of votes coming from inside a conference’s “emergency meeting” were leaked to the media, followed by a denial that there was even a vote to begin with. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is insisting one conference’s decision won’t affect the SEC’s ultimate fate. Wait just a second — aren’t they playing the same sport under relatively-comparable situations? Head coaches started speaking out against their own university’s presidents, and schools like Nebraska are threatening to leave their conference all together because the Big Ten… Well, this basically captures it:

It’s one thing to prepare to write a big check. My guess is, they’re working on that part. But college basketball and the forces behind it have to think past that. They have to learn the lessons of a chaotic college football season. Or, at least, a chaotic college football pre season — if that’s what we’re calling this time period.

Will college basketball use one big bubble? Several smaller bubbles? Will these college students — these 17-22 year olds — be allowed to see their parents and families at all? Will the families join them in their respective bubbles, like the NBA has just agreed on, or will the players be able to leave campus and visit their hometowns? Will the first game be postponed?

Still, further.

Will the sport allow a players’ association? Wait, what’s the difference between a players’ association and a union? Will the players be compensated for their time and sacrifices inside the bubble? Can they at least (finally) make money off of their own image and likeness? How will the NCAA react when presented with a list of demands? Is it prepared to speak on social issues or racial inequality? Is it prepared to at least allow the players to do so?

Is all of this only for men’s basketball programs? Is that even allowed?

Oh, right — how will these players go to class?

These are some of the many questions the NCAA, conference commissioners and university presidents should be thinking about now — not in October. Maybe they should include head coaches and players in these discussions, too, rather than waiting for a massive and somewhat messy #WeWantToPlay campaign sprawled across social media. Kentucky’s Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart says “we’re going to find a way to play a championship,” but we’ve seen how fast things can change.

At this point, there’s no reason to sit around and hope the virus miraculously goes away just in time for the previously-scheduled start of the season. At this point, it’s naive and blissfully ignorant to think we won’t need to take the necessary precautions come basketball season.

It’s not “back in March” anymore. We don’t have the time.

Article written by Maggie Davis

I love sports, podcasts, long walks on the beach and Twitter (@MaggieDavisKSR)

11 Comments for College basketball needs a plan… Now

  1. runningunnin.454
    9:27 pm August 12, 2020 Permalink

    Very nice article; conceptualize…good word; and, I think you covered all the bases. I think the athletes will be safer in a “bubble”concept, more so than the general population, at college or otherwise.
    So, at the risk of being called a heathen, the plan that basketball needs is to “toss it up”.

  2. Dr. Tom
    10:23 pm August 12, 2020 Permalink

    Okay Maggie, August 6 has come and gone. When is Indy going to release our big man Oliver Sarr??

    • CrystalBall
      11:02 pm August 12, 2020 Permalink

      Dr. Tom. My guess would be sometime in October.

    • CrystalBall
      11:43 pm August 12, 2020 Permalink

      Or, when donkeys fly.

    • chris gettelfinger is not walking through that door
      9:54 am August 13, 2020 Permalink

      That is a good question.

  3. panicpat
    1:31 am August 13, 2020 Permalink

    Solid question Tom

  4. CJKAssassin123
    6:11 am August 13, 2020 Permalink

    This is easily one of the best articles Maggie has ever written for KSR!!!

    • The Original WTF Guy
      10:11 am August 13, 2020 Permalink

      I’ve become a big fan of Maggie’s but disagree with this.

      First, I agree plans to plan need to begin, but there is no need, yet, to have *the* plan. Second, you can’t get to almost the end of the article and bring up the need to go to class. Part of what has turned people off to college athletics, especially at the P5 level, is the fact that it is professional athletics masquerading as amateur athletics. Now, if you believe we are past anything that is amateur athletics and the notion that these athletes are not really students, fine, but that leads to a transformation of what college athletics is. If you believe in a model that is similar to what we have, the educational experience has to be higher up than 7/8 through the discussion.

      While this may seem like an extreme position, the idea of placing 18-22 year olds in a “bubble” simply so we can watch them play a game for our amusement seems similar to what the Romans did with gladiators in the Coliseum. How/why would any of us expect that to happen? If it was our son/daughter would we want them to forgo perhaps a year of education and months when we wouldn’t be able to see them just so others would have something to watch on their big screen television (and I say that as someone who just hung a new 75″ one on the wall).

      The first thing that needs to be done is to realize the “previously scheduled start of the season” is simply too early. It’s not only too early this year, it’s too early any year. In the mid-90s or so the NCAA manddated that games could not start prior to Dec 1 other than for exempted tournaments. Now we are opening in early November. Move the start of the season to mid-December at the earliest. UK doesn’t need to play Cupcak U and Lollipop Tech for a month. Moving the start of the season provides more time to do what Maggie is suggesting – plan. It gets us closer to some sort of resolution regarding the pandemic and doesn’t significantly impact the season.

      Maggie, not sure you pay attention to these comments, but you are doing a great job. I just disagree with the idea that college basketball simply *has* to happen because I am a sports fan. Which I have found out that I’m really not. I am a UK basketball/football fan. I am a golf fan during the majors and/or when Tiger is playing. I am a semi-finals and finals fan of grand slam tennis. I am a Bama football fan (they pay me each month). I am a Man United fan. And that’s about it. All the others exist only so those I mention have someone to play. My point is that sports simply is not important enough to me to continue to justify the treatment of 18-22 year olds who so many believe are doing what they do for our amusement.

      I’ll stop here. Find a copy of “The 100-Yard Lie” by Rick Telander. It came out in the early 1990s and has one of the best solutions to the issue of college athletics I have seen. It’s dated and would need to be updated to include NIL issue, but it’s still a really good solution.

  5. ukkatzfan
    8:06 am August 13, 2020 Permalink

    Players should have a union. Union dues $15000/yr. same as nfl. Teach them there’s a cost.

    • chris gettelfinger is not walking through that door
      9:53 am August 13, 2020 Permalink

      Yeah, a local host where I live made the point that they’ll have to be considered employees to have a union, and they’ll have to pay taxes on their stipends…get a W-2 and all that. They haven’t thought about that. Even all the free gear they get will probably be considered income IMO. The IRS taxes anything you get if you’re considered an employee.

  6. Lip Man 1
    12:40 pm August 13, 2020 Permalink

    Regarding basketball and the “bubble” option. Sounds good until you realize that there are a number of schools out there that can’t afford to have players, coaches, support staff holed up in a hotel for months at a time especially with the money lost during the pandemic.

    AND if you do this for men, you have to do it for women. Can’t have just a men’s NCAA Tournament or Title IX issues are going to come into play.

    What may happen if the Power Five programs leave the NCAA in the next few months is an ability to do this and have there own tournament, how that would go over with the public, I have no idea.