Opinion | Don’t Let the Games Begin

Look no further than the storied Rose Bowl game to understand the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s disingenuous and perilous posturing about the sanctity of its athletics programs while the coronavirus has ravaged the country and college campuses.

Ignoring health officials who have deemed the annual playoff matchup too dangerous to be held on New Year’s Day in Pasadena, Calif., amid a massive spike in Covid-19 cases, the N.C.A.A. simply allowed it to move to Texas, where local officials are willing to let some 16,000 fans attend. It’s the worst kind of forum shopping.

The N.C.A.A. likes to tell itself that it is in the business of educating students about the virtues of competition and sportsmanship. What it is showing them now by example is that some sports — the moneymaking kind — are more important than public health.

Alabama’s top-ranked football team played a game without its coach, Nick Saban, who had said in-person schooling should be canceled sooner than football over coronavirus concerns, before catching the virus himself. Perhaps the sport’s premier rivalry, between Ohio State and Michigan, had its annual game called off because of an outbreak. And the University of California, Berkeley, played just four of eight games scheduled.

About one in five college football games was canceled during the season over coronavirus worries, according to N.C.A.A. data, which doesn’t include teams like the University of Connecticut’s, which preemptively canceled its entire 12-game season. Despite thousands of athletes being sickened by the coronavirus, the conferences forged ahead, including even the Big Ten and Pac-12, which in the summer prudently chose to suspend their seasons but reversed course. Many college football stadiums allowed in thousands of spectators, who displayed varying adherence to mask protocols, though college basketball appears unlikely to allow fans into its arenas.

At least 10 football bowl games have been canceled, and many schools are opting out of bowl eligibility to forestall the virus’s spread.

Yet college officials are now pressing ahead with the more intimate sport of basketball, ignoring the lessons of the abortive and misguided football season. College basketball is the first major indoor sport to attempt a season without the restrictive player bubbles successfully employed by professional basketball and hockey leagues. These so-called student-athletes are being treated like essential workers, but without the benefit of pay or the opportunity to share in the profits that line the pockets of administrators, coaches and television executives.

Already, roughly one in four Division I men’s and women’s games has been canceled or postponed, N.C.A.A. data show. There is no reason college basketball cannot be delayed until conditions improve or the vaccine is deployed in larger numbers. It’s the right thing to do, particularly as college towns bear the brunt of coronavirus transmission and deaths.

But college sports abound with hypocrisy. Fearing the pandemic’s toll, the Duke University women’s basketball team ended its season early last week, while the men continue to play, regularly, on national television. This despite the Duke men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski’s apparent discomfort playing through the pandemic: “I don’t think it feels right to anybody. I mean, everyone is concerned,” he said this month. Or should we believe the coronavirus is less transmissible if the sport is more profitable?

Even others whose livelihoods depend on college basketball have seemed dismayed. Noting the rising toll of the pandemic, one TV commentator asked during a Duke game against the University of Illinois, “If we were deciding to start now, would we start now? The answer, I think, would be no.” Iona College’s coach Rick Pitino called on Twitter for the March Madness tournament to be pushed back to May.

It should never have come to this. The Pac-12 and Big Ten initially heeded medical experts’ advice that it was likely too dangerous to hold a college football season, particularly with concerns about the lingering effects of the virus, including on the heart. But in the end, boosterism and dollar signs appeared to outweigh student safety, and the conferences reversed course. (President Trump also tried to apply pressure to restart Big Ten football, which runs through several swing states.)

College basketball, by comparison, requires far more travel than football and is a high contact sport, also with no masks. To muddle through a basketball season, the N.C.A.A. is advising players and staff to get three coronavirus tests per week, a luxury unavailable to most students and one that takes tests away from those who might need them more urgently.

While college athletes are welcome to opt out of the season in exchange for an extra scholarship year, the pull of peer pressure and the draw of glory or desired relevance may be too hard to resist. Students shouldn’t be asked to choose between the basketball court and their health, let alone that of the communities they return to during school breaks.

The coronavirus is still ripping across the country. Hospital beds are scarce, and deaths are rising. Over the past two weeks, the country averaged nearly 200,000 new daily cases. California, home to four Pac-12 basketball schools, reported more than 300,000 new cases in the seven days that ended on Dec. 22. As a sport, basketball is anathema to doctors and medical experts who continue to espouse the community benefits of staying six feet apart, congregating outside and avoiding large gatherings.

University officials have only to look around their communities to see the sacrifices other businesses — restaurants, bowling alleys, movie theaters and bars — are making for public safety. By making sports the imperative, colleges and universities are creating two classes of students: athletes who must travel around the country, staying in hotels, playing and competing indoors, and those who may choose to study safely at home.

Delaying the basketball season is the right choice. After a folly-filled football season, university and college administrators and the N.C.A.A. can show real leadership by putting the safety of their players and their communities first.

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