Duke cancels season. Should other programs follow?

Duke head coach Kara Lawson (standing) thinks basketball should not be played under the current conditions. | Photo courtesy of Duke women’s basketball via Twitter

Even with a vaccine on the way, Kara Lawson’s Duke Blue Devils called it quits for the rest of the season due to coronavirus concerns. Should sports be played right now? And, if play continues, how can the NCAAW use the WNBA as an example to make things as safe as possible?

March 12 is when the global COVID-19 pandemic was declared, right in the heart of a month celebrated for basketball entertainment at its best.

Over the past nine months, the world has been reminded not to take for granted things that are more important than basketball. Sports went away for a while. Now that they are back, many are still questioning if it is right to be holding athletic competition at all under the circumstances of the pandemic.

Duke women’s basketball coach Kara Lawson is one of those people and, on Friday, the university announced that Lawson’s players decided to cancel the remainder of their season.

The NCAAW season has been challenging, but the WNBA’s success in a bubble inspired the NCAA to hold its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments in bubbles, which hopefully will make things run more smoothly down the stretch if other teams continue their seasons and make it to the tournaments.

Should sports be played right now?

A particularly scary moment occurred on Dec. 12, when Florida men’s basketball player Keyontae Johnson, who tested positive for COVID-19 over the summer, collapsed during a game. Johnson has since been diagnosed with myocarditis (heart inflammation), forcing him to sit out for at least three months and opening everyone’s eyes with concern about playing during the pandemic.

Doctors do not know for sure if COVID-19 led to heart inflammation for Johnson, but the coronavirus can cause myocarditis. Vanderbilt women’s basketball player Demi Washington also was diagnosed with myocarditis after a battle with COVID-19 and was ruled out for the season.

According to reporting from The Gainesville Sun, myocarditis’ link to COVID-19 was part of the reason the Big Ten and Pac-12 postponed fall sports. And yet, a player has now collapsed on the court and the show goes on.

Part of the reason sports continue is because of the money they generate and how much they help the overall economy. But many have asked, “At what risk?”— especially with the vaccine on its way.

Now that the administration of the vaccine has begun, things could be on the upswing, but perhaps not until the NCAAW season is over.

In November, Iona men’s basketball coach and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame member Rick Pitino called for the NCAA to delay the season and the NCAA Tournament. Duke’s men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, also a Hall of Famer, has more recently admitted to questioning if basketball should be played right now.

His counterpart on the women’s side, Lawson, said outright on Dec. 9, “I don’t think we should be playing right now.” Her team then paused basketball activities on Dec. 16 after two positive tests from within its travel party.

Now that Duke has canceled its season, other programs may follow. Should they?

Struggles since the WNBA season ended

The WNBA was able to hold its 2020 season in a condensed format after the initial pause on sports. Starting with the first discussions about a return to sports, the WNBA seemed to be more on top of things than some of the nation’s other sports leagues. The WNBA went on to begin its season with minimal controversy and ended up having great success with zero positive tests during its time in the Bradenton, Florida, bubble at IMG Academy.

College sports have struggled far more during the ongoing pandemic than the WNBA did. Many programs have had positive test results and experienced contact tracing issues and other complications.

News updates about cancellations and postponements have become a daily norm. Some of the top women’s basketball programs in the country were put on pause, most notably No. 3 UConn, which recently has resumed play. No. 2 Louisville, scheduled to resume play on New Year’s Eve against Duke, now must find a new opponent if it wants to play that day.

Coaches, including Louisville’s Jeff Walz, have resorted to large group texts with other coaches to help them find new opponents in cases where their scheduled opponent was forced to cancel.

Other head coaches, such as No. 6 Arizona’s Adia Barnes, have turned to Twitter to communicate about scheduling replacement opponents.

In short, the 2020-21 NCAAW season has been chaotic.

The WNBA as an example

The WNBA was able to operate amid the pandemic without the existence of a vaccine and should be looked to as an example for the NCAAW for the remainder of its season. The WNBA was strict about COVID rules, such as wearing masks, undergoing frequent testing and quarantining when necessary. It set an example for the rest of society as to how to properly remain safe during the pandemic.

However, deciding to play in a bubble and being committed to making that happen is what set the foundation for the rest of the WNBA’s success during the 2020 season.

It seems many sports leagues, including the NCAAW, should have thought twice about having a season if it wasn’t going to be in a bubble. The NBA, for example, was more successful in 2020 than Major League Baseball because it brought 22 of its 30 teams to a bubble in Orlando. MLB, on the other hand, faced a lot of postponements because it elected to have its 30 teams travel from city to city like they would during a normal season, before finally making minor precautionary changes to the postseason format.

Of course, a bubble for the entire season wouldn’t have been possible for the 300-plus women’s basketball programs in Division I. But at least bubble play is on the way for the postseason, as the nation tries to close out the COVID era safely.

The NCAA has decided to conduct the men’s basketball tournament in Indianapolis and the women’s also in a single geographic location, likely San Antonio. With Duke now opting out of its season and other teams with potential to follow, it is yet to be seen if the 2020-21 season will reach tournament time.

Hopefully the pandemic will soon be over so that sports can be played normally again and return to being something that contributes to our enjoyment, not our worries about athlete safety.