For millions of Americans, March 11 was the day reality struck, the day COVID-19 morphed from a vague abstraction into a world-shattering force.
When the NBA abruptly suspended its season on March 11, panic set in. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban might’ve captured the mood of an entire nation when ESPN cameras zoomed in on him reading the news on his phone mid-game, mouth agape in pure disbelief. Cuban would later tell the network, “This seems like more out of a movie than reality.”
Frank Martin remembers sitting in his hotel room that night in Nashville, wide awake. His South Carolina men’s basketball team was supposed to play Arkansas the next day in the SEC Tournament.
Martin was nervous.
“’I don’t know if I want to coach this game,” he thought. “I don’t know if I want to bring our players into an arena to play the game with this disease, this virus out there that we know nothing about.”
The next day, the SEC canceled its tournament — as did nearly every other conference in the country. The sports world stalled to a halt. Normalcy swiftly slipped away. Martin remembers just wanting to be home with his wife, Anya, and his three children.
Two months later, Martin caught COVID-19 himself. He tested positive while prepping for knee-replacement surgery. The result stunned him. He and Anya had been so careful, never leaving the house except for the occasional grocery store run. Martin didn’t experience physical symptoms, but the mental toll was overwhelming.
“You struggle going to sleep at night, and then you wake up every morning wondering, because some people have not been lucky,” Martin told The State. “And you struggle with a thought like, ‘Did I spread it to my family?’ ‘No. 2, is this going to grab me? And am I going down for the count?’
“Because there is no cure. It’s not like these other things where you go to the doctor, they give you a shot, and you’re good to go. No, this one, it’s a fight that you got no idea what the outcome is going to be. So it becomes real stressful, and you end up in a lonely place.”
COVID-19 remains a very real threat, with the virus claiming more than 170,000 American lives. An ensemble forecast from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects nearly 189,000 deaths by Sept. 5. Yet in the same way that the NBA shutdown stirred fear in the country in March, the recent return of sports has instilled a sense of cautious hope. The NBA playoffs are back on TV, and the much-ballyhooed “bubble” seems to be working. The WNBA is humming along. NFL players are practicing — with pads on.
College sports are another story. While much of the attention has understandably been placed on when — or if — college football might be played, both men’s and women’s basketball teams are efforting to play, too. USC basketball players reported to campus on July 20. Martin said he was so energized by returning to the court with his players that he forgot his knee had even been replaced.
The fear that had once consumed Martin has largely dissipated. There will always be concern in the back of his mind, he said, but he added that he and his players feel encouraged by the early success of the school’s safety protocols. He said the Gamecocks would play tomorrow if they could. They wouldn’t think twice about it.
“I’m extremely confident that we will play basketball,” Martin said. “But I’m not the decision-maker. I heard Herm Edwards say this, which I totally agree with:
“As coaches, we’re always in control of our game plans and preparation and the message that we’re trying to get out about our team. Well, this is the first time where we’re not in control, and the doctors are in control. And I don’t want a doctor telling me what play I should diagram in the timeout. I’m not going to tell a doctor what play we should run to attack what we’re dealing with right now.”
Life changes quickly in the Age of COVID, but early indications from people in the know are that college basketball will be played this season. It will look different. The men’s and women’s seasons might not start on time; NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt said a decision on scheduling would be made by mid-September, and there are several options on the table — from an on-time start of Nov. 10 to as late as Dec. 4 (with January not yet a serious possibility). There could be neutral-site bubbles or other bubble-like setups.
Unlike football, college basketball decision-makers have the gift of time, time to watch and learn from the NBA and WNBA, time to see how the pandemic evolves. As long as players continue to get through practices safely, drastic decisions don’t yet need to be made.
“It’s a matter of safety, and there probably will be some hiccups if, in fact, there are college basketball bubbles,” said Fran Fraschilla, a former college coach and longtime ESPN analyst. “But I think that given the safety protocols that are being learned, on a daily and weekly and a monthly basis, I think we’re going to play, and I think the kids want to play.
“And, obviously, it’s going to be an unusual next seven or eight months. ‘Flexibility’ is going to be the watchword when it comes to playing college basketball with a virus that’s still looming over the country.”
Gamecocks women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley said that even if games do happen for the 2020-21 season, she’s not hopeful about having fans in the building at Colonial Life Arena. Jeff Blake Jeff Blake Photo Life in the bubble
Debbie Antonelli has already seen how a bubble works, albeit from the outside. The veteran analyst for ESPN, CBS, Fox and Westwood One has been calling games for the WNBA since its restart, not from Bradenton, Florida, where the games are actually happening, but from her home in Charleston, South Carolina.
“The broadcast kit consists of some audio equipment with a MacBook Pro, and all of it’s connected together and it connects to my television,” Antonelli told The State. “And then I call the game off the monitor, off the TV, and I can see my broadcast partner in a little box on the computer. So, I have a stat monitor, I have the TV, I can see my partner in the computer, and it’s working.”
Antonelli will be the first to admit it’s not ideal — she misses spending time on the court with players and coaches before the game, gleaning details to pepper into the broadcast later. But she is also clear-eyed about the current situation. With no vaccine and no known antiviral treatment, this is the near-future of sports, if there is to be any.
And at least at the moment, Antonelli does believe there will be. The WNBA and NBA have reported zero positive tests among their athletes for several consecutive weeks now. The ACC, SEC and Big 12 are pushing forward with football. And the NCAA simply cannot afford to go two years without college basketball, she said.
“Just the NCAA alone, which 97% of its revenue comes from the men’s basketball tournament, how is that fortress in Indianapolis gonna survive if we don’t have a men’s tournament?” Antonell said. “I think they’re gonna have to figure it out. And I think everyone will be willing to figure it out.”
The most pressing issue Antonelli is considering at the moment when it comes to college basketball is the non-conference season. The Pac-12 has already said it won’t have any competitions until Jan. 1, 2021, canceling matchups like the hotly anticipated clash between South Carolina’s women’s squad and Oregon that was supposed to energize fans who didn’t get to see the two favorites square off for a national championship this past season.
Ideas for regional bubbles to salvage some kind of non-league play have already been bandied about, and Antonelli is in the unique position of having already considered what it would mean to gather a large group of teams in one place for an extended period of time.
For years now, Antonelli has advocated for the NCAA women’s tournament to centralize its Sweet 16 and Elite Eight rounds in Las Vegas. In building that proposal, she’s considered logistics like hotels, arenas, even things like distance-learning centers for student-athletes to keep up with their academics. She believes it can be adapted to fit the current circumstances.
“It has been 10 years of me discussing that model. I had no intention of it ever, I mean, who knew we were going to be in a pandemic, right? But it would work,” Antonelli said.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley is one of the preeminent voices in women’s basketball. Her Gamecocks were one of the favorites to win a national title this past spring before the tournament was canceled, and they’re expected to be right back near the top, presuming the 2020-21 season happens.
At least at the moment, “I’m optimistic that we’ll play. I don’t know how optimistic I am that we’ll play in November. You just take it day by day,” she told The State.
But count her as strongly in favor of any bubble-like scenarios if it means games will happen.
“Yeah, absolutely, I’d be open to playing in a bubble and I’m sure our players will after seeing how effective the WNBA and the NBA have done it,” Staley said, adding that her players have been policing themselves about following health protocols since returning to campus and would likely be comfortable in a bubble setting.
Staley has transformed South Carolina into a women’s basketball powerhouse over the past several years in part by building a fiercely loyal fan base. Colonial Life Arena has become one of the loudest environments in the sport, and USC has led the nation in average attendance in each of the last six seasons.
While South Carolina athletics recently announced attendance plans for Williams-Brice Stadium that caps capacity at 20,000, basketball, as an indoor sport, may face additional hurdles. Before USC announced those plans, Staley said even if games do happen, she’s not hopeful about having the Gamecock faithful in the building.
“I don’t think there are gonna be fans in the stands in the beginning,” Staley said. “I think we’re gonna have to work up to that. I think we just need to get sports started. Well, first we got to make sure everybody’s safe, and then we get sports started. And then we figure out how we work in the fan situation.”
The NCAA canceled March Madness and other winter and spring championships last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Most observers believe there will be an NCAA basketball tournament in 2021 because of the revenue it generates. Keith Srakocic AP Doctor drops a ‘Titanic’ reference in regards to sports
Will student-athletes be safe?
In these unprecedented times, confident answers are difficult to come by. There are reasons for optimism, like the smooth operation of the NBA and WNBA bubbles. But there are seemingly just as many reasons for concern — such as the COVID-19 outbreaks that spread through the Miami Marlins’ and St. Louis Cardinals’ clubhouses during Major League Baseball’s restart.
In recent weeks, colleges have walked back fall reopening plans. The University of North Carolina moved its undergraduate courses online after only one week of in-person classes. More than 130 UNC students tested positive for the virus, and the university has now identified 10 COVID-19 clusters on campus. Clusters at North Carolina State and Notre Dame have led to similar decisions, which raises the question: If it isn’t safe for students to attend classes, can they safely play sports?
Dr. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease specialist at Emory University and a top NCAA medical adviser, told college sports leaders on a conference call Aug. 13 that he didn’t think the country was ready to play.
“I feel like the Titanic. We have hit the iceberg, and we’re trying to make decisions of what time should we have the band play,” said Del Rio, who serves on an NCAA COVID-19 advisory panel. “We need to focus on what’s important. What’s important right now is we need to control this virus. Not having fall sports this year, in controlling this virus, would be to me the No. 1 priority.”
Jay Bilas, one of ESPN’s marquee college basketball analysts, tuned into that call. He was taken aback by Del Rio’s words.
“It strikes me as pretty deep that a medical professional would use the Titanic as an analogue,” Bilas told The State. “The Titanic. That doesn’t sound promising — because I know the outcome of the Titanic.
“But that didn’t come from an NCAA statement. It came from this particular medical professional on a conference call. Now, why has that not been said publicly, and with the NCAA logo behind it? With the heft of the NCAA office behind it? I find that to be a major failure.”
Bilas has never been one to mince words when discussing the NCAA. A Duke alum who also practices as an attorney, Bilas has been a staunch advocate for college athletes’ rights and has criticized the NCAA for its rhetoric and actions in regard to amateurism. He’s said many times that he believes college athletes deserve compensation.
In his eyes, the fact that schools are allowing student-athletes to remain on campus while sending other students home is further evidence that collegiate athletes are more than mere amateurs.
“These schools are not putting their performing arts students in a bubble to make sure they can have the (expletive) school play,” Bilas said. “This is a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry. And you know, respectfully, we are not having discussions over, ‘Hey, we need to have a football season so that these players can learn the valuable lessons that come with competition and hard work and teamwork and all these other things.’ We’re isolating them and trying to move forward because we got a multi-billion dollar entertainment industry that we want to push forward.
“And it doesn’t mean that it’s craven and we’re going to do it at the risk of anybody. But we need to be honest about what we’re doing here.”
At South Carolina, Martin said he and his players have been pleased with the guidance they’ve received from university leaders and the SEC. The Gamecocks have been separated into pods, with regimented schedules to foster social distancing, and the team has yet to run into any major safety hurdles.
“I really, really feel that our university has worked so hard to create an environment for their safety, that they’ve seen it and felt it here for the last three weeks — that they’re at peace, that they’re OK, that they’re protected, they’re covered, and they got all the right people around them from medical, to our trainers, to our doctors, that comprehend the challenges in front,” Martin said.
“I know the national narrative in collegiate athletics is that we take advantage of these kids. Come ask my players. They are happier than you know what, and they’re ecstatic about their experience. They’re ecstatic about the opportunities that this university presents to them, and they love playing and putting that uniform on. And so I think we’re ready to go if they gave us the green light and said, ‘Let’s play.’ I am confident that our guys are ready to go.”
They aren’t the only ones who want to play. After the Pac-12 and Big Ten announced they were postponing fall sports, an athlete-led #WeWantToPlay movement caught fire on social media, spearheaded by the likes of star Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields.
In a series of Tweets, Lawrence pointed out that many student-athletes could be safer with their sports teams than away from them, thanks to stringent testing protocols and high-quality medical care. Other proponents of playing fall and winter sports argue that student mental health is important to preserve, too, especially during an anxiety-provoking pandemic. One in four people aged 18 to 24 seriously contemplated suicide in June, according to research from the CDC.
Bilas said he’s sympathetic to the argument that student-athletes could be safer with their teams. His ESPN colleague, Fraschilla, agreed with the sentiment, saying a bubble “doesn’t make it foolproof, but it certainly gives them a much greater chance of staying healthy.”
In general, Fraschilla has a rosier outlook on the state of college basketball and college sports than Bilas does. It’s important to note that whatever issues befall college football in the coming days and weeks might not necessarily impact basketball in the same way. For one, the basketball season won’t start until November at the earliest, and the situation with the pandemic could evolve by then. Secondly, each sport carries different levels of risk. The National High School Federation, for instance, lists football as a high-risk sport during the pandemic while basketball is designated as a moderate risk.
Fraschilla, 61, has been around the game for 40 years. He once coached with Gavitt, the NCAA’s vice president of basketball, under Rick Barnes at Providence College. From what he’s seen and heard, he believes plans for college hoops are moving in the right direction, although he admits the virus is ultimately “in charge.”
“Time is on our side right now, but we thought that about college football in March and April as well, and that ended up being a fiasco,” Fraschilla said. “But I just think it makes perfect sense to exhaust every opportunity to get these kids back on a basketball court. And I think it’s going to happen. I do. I think we’re going to know a lot more by the time we hit December and January than we even know now.
“The other thing I would say that’s very underrated is that — and I don’t know how it is in football, but I know this basketball landscape as well as most — is that college coaches, their athletic directors, conferences, and Dan Gavitt and people in the NCAA, they have not sat by idly while they were watching the college football stakeholders. … Hopefully, we’ve gotten ahead of the curve on playing maybe even better than our football counterpart. Because we’ve watched and seen the confusion that the football stakeholders have created for everybody.”
Frank Martin has suggestions on how to handle the non-conference games, including paying for opponents’ testing the day before a matchup to putting together a series of non-conference tournaments in neutral-site bubbles Jeff Blake Jeff@JeffBlakePhoto.com Crisis Management
Everyone is watching.
No matter when college basketball starts again — and it will start again — some will say it’s too soon. In the Age of COVID, every major decision is a first. Every attempt to regain normalcy is a cautious step over a frozen lake.
Maybe the Titanic has already hit the iceberg, and maybe there’s no saving it. But that doesn’t mean college sports leaders can’t build a new ship. A safer ship.
In a recent interview with NCAA.com’s Andy Katz, Gavitt acknowledged that the basketball season will look different and that the NCAA will be “flexible” and “nimble” in how it moves forward, but he also said that a tournament will be played. On that same call, Kentucky athletic director and NCAA tournament selection committee chair Mitch Barnhart echoed Gavitt’s optimism.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to find a way to play a championship,” Barnhart said, “and we’re gonna get through this thing.”
The safe return of college sports is fraught with challenges, but it’s also ripe with opportunity. For better or worse, sports figures have long been viewed as role models and heroes by much of the American public. During this pandemic, coaches and decision-makers have the chance to exhibit real-world leadership, leadership that goes beyond the action on the court.
“I think that’s the interesting thing about where we are — and I hate to say ‘the beauty of it’ because there’s nothing beautiful about a virus — but we’re in an ultimate crisis-management mode,” Fraschilla said. “You know, I always tell college coaches, I’m a mentor to many, I’ve always said to them: ‘The No. 1 job description of a college basketball coach is not recruiter, X&O guy or booster club speaker. It’s crisis-management coordinator. That’s your job.’
“Your job on a daily basis is to handle crises. Anybody in a leadership position handles crises. So these college basketball coaches, even in the playground of life, are crisis-management coordinators. And this is, in our lifetimes, the ultimate crisis management.”
Back in March, Martin was anxious about playing basketball in a pandemic. In May, he experienced the bone-chilling fear of contracting the virus himself, not knowing how it might impact him or his loved ones.
But today, Martin feels energized. Hopeful. Along with everyone else in the country, he’s seen examples of basketball being played safely in the NBA and WNBA. He thinks college basketball will figure it out, too.
“I think it’s gonna be different than the way it’s been laid out for the last hundred years,” Martin said. “But I don’t think ‘different’ necessarily makes it bad. I think it’s gonna make all of us kind of take a deep breath.”
Throughout the pandemic, Martin has been brainstorming ways to play the game safely, and he views the current situation as an opportunity to usher in change. For instance, Martin has long been a proponent of starting the college basketball season Dec. 1, after the college football regular season ends, and a December start to this season is very much within the realm of possibility.
He’s also made suggestions to higher-ups about how to handle the non-conference slate, from paying for opponents’ testing the day before a matchup to putting together a series of non-conference tournaments in neutral-site bubbles. “Let’s find 18 schools, and let’s meet at a neutral site somewhere,” Martin said, “and let’s have two courts going at the same time.”
Martin doesn’t have all the answers. No one does. Not yet. But that doesn’t mean solutions aren’t out there. There are plans in place, and there are layers and layers of contingencies. College basketball will be played — eventually. The key for now, Martin said, is patience and positivity.
“I’m excited to see how we figure this out,” Martin said. “I like challenges. That’s why I took the job at South Carolina. I’ve never been on Easy Road, USA. I don’t understand what that path looks like. I’ve been on the gravel road, and I’ve been trying like heck to get to the nice four-lane road my whole life. And right now we’re on that gravel road, and we got to figure out a way to stay on the road and figure out a way to get to that four-lane highway.
“Sports unites people. It doesn’t divide people. Sports makes us, even though we might root for different teams, it don’t make us enemies, it makes us rivals. And not having that for the last four and a half months I really think impacted our country in a negative way and didn’t give us an outlet to find positivity. And so I like the challenge to see how we end up, what happens, so we can maybe bring some positivity into our country that I think desperately needs some positive things.”
Greg Hadley is the beat writer for South Carolina women’s basketball and baseball for GoGamecocks and The State. He also covers football and recruiting.
Michael Lananna specializes in Gamecocks athletics and storytelling projects for The State. Featured in Best American Sports Writing 2018, Lananna covered college baseball nationally before moving to Columbia in 2020. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 2014 with a degree in journalism.
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