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Keith Strudler: College Basketball At A Crossroads

College basketball court
Ian Pickus

It may be the throes of college football season, with all the pageantry and Covid cancellations that come with it, but most people working in college athletics are already looking ahead to a light in the tunnel. That light is college basketball, and by all accounts, it may be a freight train. While most American universities outside of major Division I programs have sat out fall sports, they’ve all been looking towards the winter, and college basketball in particular, as the return to action, if not normal. Some of that is driven by imperative, since for Division I non-major football programs, men’s hoops is where the lion’s share of revenue is generated. Which means that without a college basketball season there will be existential questions about college athletics that go far beyond 2021. Which is why everyone from the PAC 12 to the Big East is trying to make this work.

I suppose actually not everyone, since Bethune Cookman recently became the first Division I school to cancel all winter sports, basketball included. They cited high case loads in Florida and campus safety, but also clearly in play was the cost of running sports in the Covid era at a school with a meager athletics budget and financial shortfalls everywhere else. Also cancelled are all the pre-season tournaments typically held at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, the place now best known as the home of the NBA Bubble. Unlike pro-sports, Disney found it highly unlikely they could provide a Covid-free experience for all the college basketball teams coming in and out from around the country. Which means that a whole lot of teams will miss out on inter-conference games, which is how a lot of teams play their way into the tournament. Which also is leading some teams and conferences to propose a conference only schedule, something of a kill shot to everyone but the well-endowed top tier. In other words, we’re heading into the prospect of an even deeper divide between the haves and have nots, a recurrent theme in college sports. And we haven’t even talked about what happens to Division II and III as well as all of women’s college basketball, none of which generates a profit and all of which is burdened with the same health and safety concerns and costs.

All of that with about a month from when the season is supposed to begin, something that now feels about as likely as a Covid relief bill. Of course, teams are trying, even with fits and starts with positive test results. Like at Cal Berkley, who just suspended practice with a positive test, as will a bunch others despite the best of intentions. Unlike football, basketball is an indoor sport where pretty much entire teams remain in close proximity to one another, without even the approximation of a helmet and pads to keep people apart. If you were looking for a vehicle to spread the disease, it would be hard to find a better one than indoor basketball.

So what’s the answer. Who knows. It’s a fork with two very unsavory pathways, both with potentially dire consequences. On the one hand, playing brings obvious health risks and might create a unrealistic expectation that this is going to actually be possible. And it might end up breaking Division I college athletics in two. On the other hand, if they don’t play, some universities may have to cut their programs not just this year, but forever. And not to state the obvious, it will deny an opportunity for a bunch of college athletes who by and large want to play – not that that’s the deciding factor. And to be fully transparent, I feel a bit hypocritical, because as much as I think playing a full indoor college basketball season is really risky, I also want my own kids – who are admittedly much younger at 10 and 13 – to be able to play rec basketball this winter, mainly because it’s really hard to watch your kids miss out on even more of their own childhood. So I’ll refrain from even attempting the moral high ground.

My guess is we’re likely to see a whole lot more Bethune Cookmans in the upcoming days and weeks, making this college basketball season a whole lot like this college football season – only for the top tier. Whether that leads to a seismic shift is yet to be determined, and probably also depends on the overall state of the American economy and the fiscal health of American universities, something that should not be taken for granted. Hopefully we’ll get past through this season and see the light at the end of the tunnel. And hopefully it’s not a train.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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