- The Duke Blue Devils women’s basketball team has ended their season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The Blue Devil women suspended all basketball activities on December 16, a week after the men’s hoop team cancelled their remaining non-conference games.
- Duke’s men’s team head coach Mike Krzyzewski has become increasingly critical of playing college basketball at this stage of the pandemic.
The Duke University women’s basketball team announced on Christmas Day that they will not play the rest of the 2020-2021 season. A press release posted on the Duke athletics website at GoDuke.com cited ‘health and safety concerns stemming from COVID-19’. Duke’s women were already idled with the program having paused all team related activities on December 16 when two members of the traveling party tested positive for COVID-19. Games against North Carolina State (December 20) and UNC-Wilmington (December 22) were cancelled as a result.
Some college sports teams have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to mercifully terminate a losing season. For example, Chicago State’s men’s basketball team suspended their season on December 23 citing COVID-19 though their 0-9 record clearly played a major part in decision. That wasn’t the case with the Duke women who went 3-1 in the early going under first year head coach Kara Lawson. Lawson actually made history during the brief season for the Blue Devils–she became the first NCAA Division I Power Five head coach to win her first three games as a head coach by 25 or more points. That early success came to a screeching halt in what would end up being Duke’s final game of the season–a 73-49 destruction at the hands of #2 ranked Louisville on December 9.
Michael Schoenfeld, Vice President for Public Affairs & Government Relations and Chief Communications Officer for Duke University, made this statement in the press release announcing the end of the season:
“The student-athletes on the Duke women’s basketball team have made the difficult decision to conclude their current season due to safety concerns. We support their decision, as we have supported the choices made by all student-athletes at Duke during this unprecedented time. Duke will maintain our current schedule of competition in other sports and will continue to observe our rigorous health and safety protocols, which include daily testing for all student-athletes and are based on guidance from leading medical experts.”
Head coach Lawson was hired in July but has caught on quickly. One day after the Blue Devils men’s coach Mike Krzyzewski openly questioned the propriety of playing basketball at this stage of the pandemic his distaff counterpart jumped on the ‘why are we playing’ bandwagon. Not everyone bought the veracity of Coach K’s overwrought comments suggesting that his sudden interest in ‘pulling the plug’ on the season might have been brought about by Duke’s underachieving 2-2 start along with the fact that the two losses were at home against non-conference opponents. The Blue Devils had lost only twice at home in the past 20 years entering this season.
Krzyzewski’s over the top comments almost sounded more like a ‘bit’ than anything else. He hammed it up like a Tony Award winning actor after the Blue Devils lost to Illinois on December 8:
“I would just like for the safety, the mental and physical health of players and staff to assess where we’re at. People are saying the next six weeks are going to 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?”
“On the other side of it, there are these vaccines that are coming out. People are saying that by the end of the month 20 million vaccine shots will be given. In February, another 100 million. Well, should we not reassess that and see what would be best?”
He went on to add what this website called “the most overwrought and schmaltzy Christmas performance by a Catholic since the days of Bing Crosby“:
“This is the best decision we could make as a program, in making sure that we are doing the right thing for our players. This will also allow our team to have time over the holidays to safely enjoy with their families. These kids need to be with their families, at least for a little bit. So we will play the Notre Dame game on December 16, and then allow our team four or five days at home before returning here to prepare for the remainder of our ACC schedule – and hopefully get to play all of them. These kids go through so much, and we need to take care of them.”
The over the top histrionics led Alabama basketball coach Nate Oats to question Coach K’s motives–particularly as it concerns playing during the COVID-19 pandemic:
“Do you think if Coach K hadn’t lost his two nonconference games at home that he would still be saying that? We 100 percent should be playing basketball.”
“Like, what are these guys gonna do? I’ve got three daughters, they need to be in school. Humans aren’t made to sit alone in isolation for weeks and weeks on end. We gotta be careful on how we do life, but you still gotta do life. A huge part of life for these guys that I’m coaching is being in the gym playing basketball.”
Reasonable arguments can be made on both sides of this debate but it was refreshing to hear another college basketball coach calling ‘BS’ on Coach K. Following Coach K’s sob fest Duke women’s coach Kara Lawson didn’t say much but made clear that she was on the same page as her iconic colleague:
“I don’t think we should be playing right now. That’s my opinion on it.”
One thing that won’t happen is for the NCAA to completely shut down college basketball. Their in a position where they almost have to play the NCAA tournament last year for financial reasons–they have a deal with CBS and Turner Sports that pays them an average of $771 million a year. In 2018, the tournament attracted $1.32 billion in national TV ad revenue. Prior to last year’s cancelled event analysts expected a TV audience of around 100 million people in 180 countries to watch the tournament. With much of the country–and for that matter the world–in shutdown due to the pandemic there’s every reason to expect even stronger numbers this time around.
Ultimately, college basketball will likely go the way of college football. Some teams will play, some teams won’t and the same dynamic will be at work during ‘March Madness’. The Duke women’s basketball team is the first Power 5 team to drop out after starting the season. There’s a chance that the men’s team could follow their lead but given the ‘brand equity’ of the Duke name and the big pile of money up for grabs they’ll likely muddle through.