The Medic: College sports are facing their last COVID-19 hurdles in the postseason

Columnist graphic for Pratik Thakur

In my last column, I highlighted my reservations about starting the NCAA men’s basketball tournament without taking a one-week break after all the conference tournaments ended. Even though the NCAA ensured only players and personnel who tested negative throughout the start of March and during conference tournaments could go to Indianapolis, coronavirus cases began rising in the Hoosier state’s capital as teams arrived. 

Unfortunately, this led to the NCAA’s no-contest decision of a first-round game between seventh-seeded Oregon and tenth-seeded VCU because there were multiple positive tests on VCU’s team. This allowed Oregon to advance to the second round, where they beat second-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes before eventually losing to our sixth-seeded USC Trojans. 

Going back to the NCAA’s decision to cancel the VCU-Oregon game, the collegiate organization worked with the Marion County Public Health Department in Indianapolis to make an informed decision, as the minimum number of players needed to participate in a game was five, but the NCAA and VCU couldn’t confirm if there were five players that weren’t exposed to the virus. 

“With potential risks to all involved in the game, we could not guarantee or be comfortable that five or more players would be available without risk,” NCAA spokesman David Worlock said in an email to The Associated Press. 

I do want to note that the NCAA’s decision to cancel the game and force VCU to forfeit was the correct choice in the end; however, how did the Rams even end up in this situation? 

As I worried, many suspect the positive cases in the Rams’ program can be traced back to their conference tournament in Dayton, Ohio.  

Some VCU’s situation can be attributed specifically to the mishandling of the safety protocol at the A-10 conference tournament. In the days leading up to the championship game, VCU and their opponent St. Bonaventure resided at a Marriott hotel in Dayton, Oh. along with the officiating crew. Unidentified sources with knowledge of the situation told CBS Sports the hotel had many other visiting parties there because of a high school state basketball tournament going on in the area at the same time. Even though the collegiate players and personnel were trying to stay safe, many others at the hotel not affiliated with the A-10 tournament were not adhering to COVID-19 protocols, such as not wearing masks in the lobby. 

Initially, I was worried the VCU-Oregon cancellation was the start of a domino effect that would lead to further cancellations in the tournament. Luckily, games have been relatively undisrupted so far. We have seen outstanding runs by Oral Roberts, Syracuse and our fellow Pac-12 members — Oregon State, Oregon and even UCLA. As we continue to live through Bill Walton’s tournament dream, hopefully we can end it on a high note, without any cancellations in these final stages.  

These NCAA-COVID issues are not exclusive to only men’s basketball. There were also cancellations in the NCAA’s men’s hockey tournament as three teams —  Michigan, St. Lawrence and Notre Dame — have already had to withdraw because of positive test results. 

Considering that there are only sixteen teams that participate in the tournament, having three competitors out because of coronavirus was a disaster. Unlike the basketball counterpart, the NCAA men’s hockey tournament is happening at four different sites to begin: Albany, New York, Bridgeport, Connecticut, Fargo, North Dakota, and Loveland, Colorado. Even though these regional sites are not as heavily populated as major cities like New York and Chicago, having the teams travel again later in the tournament can pose more risks. 

As we are nearing the end of our hectic collegiate sports seasons filled with cancellations and delays, the NCAA should take further precautions to properly finish out the remaining postseason matchups. 

Pratik Thakur is a sophomore writing about sports and its intersection with health policy during the coronavirus pandemic. His column, “The Medic,” runs every other Wednesday.