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.