It didn’t take long for men’s college basketball to present the kind of COVID-19 dilemma that is both going to define this season all the way until the NCAA Tournament and confuse most of us about how seriously the sport is taking its responsibility to public health.
On Friday morning, reports began to surface that two members of No. 2 Gonzaga’s traveling party — later confirmed to be a player and a staff member — tested positive for COVID-19 at a multi-team event in Fort Myers, Florida, and that another player was in quarantine due to contact tracing. But instead of calling off Gonzaga’s game against Auburn, as we’ve seen occur more than two dozen times already in these first few days of the season, they went ahead and played with the apparent blessing of local health officials and medical staffs from both schools.
“Both medical teams got together and felt like whatever testing protocols we had, that Gonzaga had tested their players and the guys that were on the floor did not have COVID,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl told reporters. “We tested also, so you just do the best you can, and I’m glad we worked together and got the game in, and I hope nobody gets infected by it.”
Is that supposed to be reassuring?
At this point, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that everyone involved in college sports is just making this up as they go along.
Sure, we understand that different schools and different doctors can look at the same facts and interpret them differently — just see last week’s brouhaha between Florida State and Clemson over the postponement of their football game — but we have been doing this for awhile now with COVID-19 and sports. And the idea that a team pops up with multiple positive tests a few days after flying cross-country is allowed to play the very next day day seems — let’s be kind here — somewhat irresponsible? Not to mention, completely inconsistent.
When Baylor coach Scott Drew tested positive for COVID-19 last weekend, the team was forced to pull out of the Empire Classic because its first opponent, Arizona State, and potential subsequent opponent, Villanova, didn’t want to play them. Even though Baylor’s players tested negative, the line was drawn. Why take the chance?
And yet, when Gonzaga goes to a tournament in Florida, knowing that its players have been practicing, playing, sharing a locker room, etc., they’re playing the day after a couple of positive tests? There was even a video on the team’s official Twitter account from Thursday — before it was taken down — of the team celebrating coach Mark Few’s 600th career win after beating No. 5 Kansas. The player who was presumed to test positive due to his absence from the bench on Friday was front and center in the celebration.
What happens over the next week or so as a result of this decision actually feels somewhat significant to how the rest of the college basketball season proceeds. Will Gonzaga have an outbreak that shuts them down? Pearl recently noted that his team hadn’t had a positive test associated with its program since July 4. If suddenly Auburn starts popping up with positive tests, it almost certainly means it made a terrible decision by playing this game. And what about Kansas? We’ll have to monitor the Jayhawks, too.
“That’s kind of how the preseason has went. You wait to get the news on testing and have to react and have to stay agile, and we followed the COVID protocols of the tournament and Florida health board down here,” Few said. “They’ve all been great. It’s been very professional. Our guys have been very diligent about following all the rules. We’re taking PCR tests, the gold standard, and we react to whatever happens after the tests. I think it’s going to be like that all year.”
He’s right. It is going to be like that all year — especially if teams are going to decide that it’s a good idea to play games the day after a player tests positive.
Public health officials and doctors are making a lot of these decisions, but college basketball is already off to a very rocky start. More teams tempting fate like Gonzaga and Auburn doesn’t seem like a great recipe for any sort of successful season.