We’re a week into the 2020-21 college basketball season, and the 11-time national champion UConn women’s basketball team has been strangely absent from fans’ TV screens. That’s how it’ll stay until at least mid-December.
Five days prior to what would have been the Huskies’ season opener, a member of the program (not a player or coach) tested positive for COVID-19, resulting in a two-week pause of team activities that wiped out the team’s three early nonconference games. The shutdown arose less than a week after the UConn men returned from a shutdown of their own due to a player testing positive.
With COVID-19 cases surging nationwide, UConn is far from the only school that needed to delay the start of its basketball season or pause things a few days in after someone contracted the virus. In the Big East alone, nine of 11 member schools have publicly disclosed temporary shutdowns for either one of their basketball teams this fall. Six teams have paused activities within the last two weeks.
In interviews with The Courant, public health and medical experts offered best practices as the NCAA moves forward with its season. Here’s what those experts had to say about the risks of playing basketball and how programs can mitigate them moving forward.
Basketball is a challenge
Basketball isn’t the first college sport to return to play, but it is one with unique challenges. It’s played indoors, where the virus is believed to spread more easily. Close contact in games, though relatively transient, is unavoidable. Smaller rosters mean fewer people pose a risk in contracting the virus, but also make the quarantining or isolation of even a handful of players more detrimental.
We’ve seen how basketball can be held safely: The NBA and WNBA had zero COVID-19 cases during their three-month “bubble” seasons, which took place at clean sites in Orlando and Bradenton, Fla., and featured daily testing. For financial, logistical and philosophical reasons, adopting that exact model is infeasible for college sports, though variations are being explored. Mohegan Sun is currently hosting 30+ teams at “Bubbleville,” while the Big East’s contingency plans for after the new year include a bubble or series of mini-bubbles involving shorter stays.
Dr. Karl Minges, chair of health administration and policy at the University of New Haven, said that the long-term effects of COVID-19 remain unclear (there’s not enough data yet, for example, to rule out that the virus can cause cardiac issues like myocarditis), and there’s plenty of evidence that it disproportionately affects Black and Latino people. Per the NCAA, 68 percent of Division I women’s basketball players and 77 percent of men’s players are people of color.
Even with schools and jurisdictions like UConn’s prohibiting fans at games, there’s growing evidence that outbreaks on college campuses have negative impacts on the broader community. A study in La Crosse, Wis. showed that COVID-19 clusters from college campuses were responsible for infections, and deaths, in nursing homes.
Travel is risky
Actual gameplay may not be the