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Opinion: Our country cares more about protecting athletes from COVID-19 than protecting everyone else - USA TODAY

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Duke's Coach K discusses his concerns while playing during a pandemic The Fayetteville Observer

It feels weird, doesn’t it? Check the front page and see the record numbers of Americans dying daily from COVID-19, the record numbers of people testing positive, the coronavirus spinning wildly out of control in almost every state, and then check the sports page. See the lengths we’re willing to go, not to curb the virus in our country but to make sure our schools are playing a college basketball season that nature is trying so hard to stop.

Feels weird, bordering on wrong.

Is it wrong? I don’t have that answer, and if I claimed otherwise you’d need to stop reading right now, because clearly I’d be lying. There is no singular answer, nothing black-and-white to say in response to all this gray. Could we pause the 2020-21 college basketball season today and feel good about that decision? Sure we could. Do we continue the season — and it is continuing, for however long it lasts — and feel good about that?

Yeah, OK. For now.

You can see the way I’m leaning. I’m not there, but every day something happens to make me wonder. It happens at a basketball arena in Tallahassee, Florida, and at schools in Durham, North Carolina, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

And it happens in a hospital room here in central Indiana. My hospital room.

Plexiglass surrounded Florida State's court for Wednesday's game against Indiana.

 (Photo: MIGUEL OLIVELLA)

Plexiglass to keep you out

Did you see Indiana's basketball game Wednesday night at Florida State? Notice the tall walls of plexiglass surrounding the court at FSU’s Tucker Center? It felt like watching animals in a cage, and I’m not talking about the players.

I’m talking about the fans.

The plexiglass wasn’t there to protect fans from players, but vice versa. That’s how far Florida State has gone not just to play games, but to play them in an arena with thousands of paying customers during a coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 50 Florida residents a day since Nov. 9, in a state whose governor walks and talks and governs like a cardboard cutout, thinking and feeling nothing but these words over and over:

Must … get … re-elected…

So they ring the court in plexiglass to protect the players from us, letting fans gather and infect each other, because the only people we seem intent on protecting from the virus these days are the athletes.

As a father of kids that age, as someone who counts a handful of players and coaches as literal, actual friends, I want those kids protected. You’re not reading that we care too much about the safety and well-being of hard-working college athletes.

You’re reading dismay, I guess, at the realization that when it comes to the spread of COVID-19, this country cares more about athletes than everyone else. Sports must go on, right?

Some of you, the cardboard cutouts, are sneering: You hate sports! It’s like this: If a person really and truly believes that two-and-two equals five, and that the coronavirus will magically disappear after the election, and that I hate sports … well, have at it. Nothing anybody can say to convince you otherwise.

For the rest of you, step inside my hospital room. Hey, this is a hospital. They’re going to extraordinary lengths to make it OK. You’ll be safe here. Well, no. Actually they aren’t. Which means, you won’t be.

Because this isn’t a basketball arena. It’s only a hospital. You’re on your own here.

Some nurses aren't tested — ever

Good news, bad news, read this next sentence however you want: I’m OK. It was a routine procedure, a combination of maintenance and preventative care — like checking your vehicle's antifreeze for the winter — and my car checked out fine.

The procedure was Thursday afternoon. Talking to my two nurses, just passing the time, I asked one how often she got tested for the virus. Must be daily, yeah?

“Oh honey,” she said. “I haven’t been tested since May.”

Yikes, but that’s just one person. Slipped through the cracks, maybe — it’s a large hospital. So now I’m being wheeled out of my room, toward the exit, toward my ride home, and asking another nurse: When was your last coronavirus test?

“I haven’t been tested,” she said.

I’m seeking clarification: Not once? Not ever?

Not ever, she said.

I’m telling her how strange that is — how wrong it is — and that I pay attention to sports more than the average bear, and that athletes are tested daily so they can play for our entertainment.

Now she’s seeking clarification: “They test daily?”

Pretty much, I tell her.

“Well, I don’t know how to feel about that,” she said. “They told us we can’t afford to test if we don’t have symptoms.”

My turn: So any nurse, any doctor, any staffer in this hospital — you could be asymptomatic carriers? Sharing COVID-19 with patients and not knowing it?

“Yeah,” she said, and apparently she decided how to feel about athletes being tested regularly, while our frontline heroes are not being tested at all.

“That makes me angry,” she said.

Same here. 

Coach K vs. Nate Oats

Earlier this week, after No. 11 Duke’s loss to No. 9 Illinois, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wondered aloud about the sanity of what we’re doing.

"You have 2,000 deaths a day,” he said Tuesday, a number that rose to 3,000 deaths nationally Wednesday and again Thursday. “You have 200,000 (new daily) cases. People are saying the next six weeks are going be the worst. To me, it’s already pretty bad.

"On the other side of it, there are these vaccines that are coming out. By the end of the month, 20 million vaccine shots will be given. By the end of January or in February, another 100 million. Should we not reassess that? See just what would be best?"

He continued.

"Look, I just got my butt beat by a lot. Anything I say, someone can say, ‘He’s saying that because he got his butt beat.' Do I think things should be done a little bit different? I mean, yeah. A lot of kids aren’t going to be able to go home for Christmas. It’s probably a time when they should, for mental health. But we’re just plowing through this."

Then do something about it, Coach K. That’s what I was thinking. You’re in control of your games: Every coach, president and athletic director at every school. The NCAA doesn’t have the power to shut down regular-season games, only the NCAA tournament. If you really care, Coach K, do something.

And then he did. Thursday, Duke announced it wouldn't play its last three nonconference games. Coach K said his players needed to go home for the holidays.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski

 (Photo: Rob Kinnan, USA TODAY Sports)

We see college basketball players as larger-than-life superheroes, TV stars, future millionaires. And some are. But they're all kids, and some can handle what we’re doing to them — what we’re asking them to do for us — better than others.

There was pushback to Coach K, because of course there was. Two and two, you know? To some people, it will always equal five. Like the coach at Alabama, Nate Oats, who wisecracked:

"Do you think if Coach K hadn't lost the two nonconference games at home he'd still be saying that?" 

And then Oats smiled, like someone who had all the answers. And he does: Two and two is five. You can’t tell Oats otherwise. Omniscient, that guy.

Me, I’m calling coaches about what Coach K had said, and they’re practically shouting in agreement. They said things I’d never heard, even considered, like this:

“It’s chaos. You celebrate having negative tests.”

Imagine: Being tested for something that will change your life immediately and perhaps forever, and sweating out the results. And doing it daily.

Results don’t always come back negative, either. Look around the country. So many positive tests in college basketball that, according to ESPN, roughly 20% of scheduled games have been postponed or canceled. Some teams, like Xavier, have played seven games. Others, like Butler? One game. DePaul hasn’t played yet; every game has been canceled.

Nature is trying to tell us something. So are coaches.

One told me about a player on his team having to quarantine for 10 days and spending those 10 days completely alone. He had to move out of his dorm and into another one, empty except for quarantined kids. This kid, a freshman, was alone on Thanksgiving. His coach tried to bring him Thanksgiving dinner but had to leave it with the dormitory manager, who put it on the floor outside the kid’s room, knocked and walked away.

The coach went outside and saw the kid waving from his window.

What’s better right now? To keep playing the sport that motivates them, defines them, letting basketball players be basketball players and managing whatever fear and loneliness that comes with it?

Or stop playing until we have the virus under some semblance of control, taking away their passion but also taking away the anxiety that comes with it and allowing those kids to be kids and go home for the holidays?

As I’ve said, I don’t have that answer. So much gray here, which is why Coach K was asking the question and Nate Oats, that all-knowing clown, was answering it.

As for me, I waved goodbye to my nurse outside the hospital. She waved back, but there was a look on her face, something unreadable, as she returned to the battle zone, unprotected.

Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at https://ift.tt/1JDCJuT.

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