The NCAA was created to protect college athletes. Now it’s trotting them out during a pandemic.

All of which led perhaps the game’s most venerated team, the Duke Blue Devils , on Thursday to announce it “will forgo its remaining non...



All of which led perhaps the game’s most venerated team, the Duke Blue Devils, on Thursday to announce it “will forgo its remaining nonconference regular season basketball games for the 2020-21 season … out of an abundance of caution due to the COVID-19 pandemic.” The announcement came a couple of days after its celebrated coach, Mike Krzyzewski, seemed to question the wisdom of playing college basketball games at all.

“I don’t think it feels right to anybody,” Krzyzewski said Tuesday in his postgame news conference. “… It wasn’t, like, well planned that we’re going to start Nov. 25. That was made without knowing [where] the vaccine was, how many cases. Basically, it was more of a mentality of, get as many games in as possible. And I think I would just like — for the safety, the mental health and the physical health of our players and staff — to assess where we’re at.”

Never before have those who govern college athletics, or who have the gravitas to influence that authority — with Krzyzewski, also on faculty at Duke’s Center of Leadership and Ethics, one notable exception — seemed more smarmy. Never before has the multibillion-dollar college athletics industrial complex revealed itself more exploitative of its laborers than with college campuses all but shuttered save the two sports — basketball and football — that produce the revenue that funds the NCAA and makes conference commissioners, athletic directors and coaches multimillionaires.

“When you have schools … move all their students’ classes to Zoom, shut down most of their intercollegiate sports, but continue to operate revenue-generating men’s basketball, to me that is not just a risky choice,” Fordham Law School professor Marc Edelman told me by phone Friday. “That is showing utter disregard for the well-being of a small subset of the student population simply because they are able to bring in great revenues to the school.”

Joining three other academics — lawyer and University of Georgia sport management professor Thomas Baker, University of Michigan medical ethicist Andrew G. Shuman and John T. Holden of the Oklahoma State business school — Edelman added his legal expertise to a soon-to-be-published Michigan State Law Review article titled “Exploring College Sports in the Time of Covid-19: a Legal, Medical, and Ethical Analysis.”

They write: “In recent decades the NCAA has taken actions that arguably prioritize maximizing individual member schools’ athletic revenues over concerns of athlete safety. The NCAA’s changing, if not conflicting, ideals call into doubt their willingness to address this complex challenge [of playing in a pandemic] with the best interests of student-athletes in mind.”

The fashionable critique of the NCAA focuses almost solely on its financial exploitation of athletic labor. We’ve forgotten that the organization’s very existence was encouraged by a president, Theodore Roosevelt, and a public that was unnerved by newspaper reports of carnage on college football fields. It was reported in 1905 that the year’s college football season resulted in 19 player deaths and 137 serious injuries. The Chicago Tribune called the fall sport a “death harvest,” and Roosevelt summoned the presidents of the big football colleges to the White House to come up with solutions to tame the game. Thus was birthed the NCAA.

College sports is bereft of such leadership in 2020, save a handful of folks such as Krzyzewski and Duke President Vincent Price. Their school sounded the alarm in March, as the virus morphed into a pandemic, when it stopped participating in all athletic competitions, theoretically including the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, where it is a fixture. That accelerated the deflation of March Madness.

It was a good thing, too. Even with the failing experiment we’ve witnessed from college football shoving its athletes onto the field in the midst of this pandemic only to watch team after team cancel games because of an outbreak, the potential consequences of a basketball season are worse. There are more games. Hence, there is more travel. All the games are played indoors. Many will be played in localities where elected officials have implemented restrictions on indoor gatherings: in schools, restaurants and bars and houses of worships. Yet, only the leaders of the eight-school Ivy League and historically black Maryland Eastern Shore and Bethune-Cookman have refused to put their athletes at risk and honored national health recommendations by canceling their basketball seasons.

Playing through the pandemic is “the antithesis of what college presidents are supposed to be doing,” Edelman said, “given they are intended to provide education and well-being.”

Edelman graduated from the University of Pennsylvania before earning a law degree from Michigan, where he was sucked into the maize and blue fanaticism. He said he hasn’t watched college games this year.

“Michigan athletics had a long and proud history in the past,” Edelman said. “But until the point and time that the decision-makers at the University of Michigan believe it’s sufficiently safe for the student body to congregate together for classes, they are violating their duty to their men’s basketball players by having them congregate and putting them at risk.”

It should be noted — no, highlighted — that basketball and football teams at the large state schools and powerful privates that generate most of college sports’ riches are comprised disproportionately of Black men, who are underrepresented among undergraduate enrollees. It should be further highlighted that Black families, to whom those athletes return home, are among the hardest hit by covid-19 of all demographics in the country.

Some have suggested that the only reason Krzyzewski wanted to curtail the college basketball season, if not end it, was that his Blue Devils were off to an uncharacteristically poor start. I’m not surprised at the cynicism.

Many of us are numb to the physical exploitation of college athletes from the exhilaration of witnessing their often extraordinary performances. The pushers who profit from our addiction aren’t about to stop.

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Newsrust: The NCAA was created to protect college athletes. Now it’s trotting them out during a pandemic.
The NCAA was created to protect college athletes. Now it’s trotting them out during a pandemic.
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