Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 26, 2020

College Seasons Stagger On

Even as sports fans were turning their attention to the Thanksgiving holiday and its attendant rituals, the seasons of the two major college sports clamored for a bit of attention this week. In one sense it’s easy to see that as a good thing. After all, as clearly evidenced by those aforementioned rituals, Thanksgiving during a pandemic was, like so many other things this year, necessarily diminished.

The Macy’s Parade, a morning staple for millions, was reduced to a made-for-television event, with much of what viewers saw Thursday morning taped for broadcast earlier in the week, and the live portions parading, if it can be called that, for just a single city block in front of the department store chain’s flagship outpost on Gotham’s Herald Square. No long march from Central Park West down Broadway to the delight of a couple hundred thousand spectators. No high school and college bands from around the country. And while the Rockettes did make their usual appearance, their performance was of a number from the Nutcracker that was specifically chosen because it allowed the dancers to maintain distance from each other for much of the routine.

Then there was the tepid appeal of the day’s traditional sports fare, multiple clashes between NFL teams. The game between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers, originally scheduled for Thanksgiving night, was belatedly moved to Sunday afternoon after multiple positive COVID-19 tests among Ravens players. While the decision was clearly the right one, it eliminated a contest between a very good Baltimore squad that has been reeling with injuries of late, and the lone remaining undefeated franchise in the NFL, the Steelers. The removal of that appealing holiday matchup left four teams with a combined record of 13-27. That’s partly because the two traditional Thanksgiving hosts are Detroit and Dallas. The Lions have posted losing records in fifteen of the last twenty seasons, including one in which the team failed to win a single game. The Cowboys, despite the braggadocio of owner Jerry Jones, the opulence of Texas Stadium, and the market value of the franchise, haven’t been among the NFL’s elite clubs on the field in a generation, and this year are part of the most embarrassingly bad division in the league. But Thanksgiving Day games in Detroit and Dallas are apparently written into the NFL’s bylaws, leaving fans with games involving those sorry clubs and the equally bad representatives from Houston and Washington.

So at least there was college football and basketball to talk about. On Tuesday, the selection committee for the College Football Playoff released its first pass at the rankings that will ultimately determine the four schools participating in this season’s tournament as well as the teams headed to major bowl games. Then just one day later the college basketball season began, with a very full schedule of games in every corner of the country. Yet while the usual debate over the playoff rankings is always entertaining, and perusing the long list of hardcourt scores and game recaps was a pleasant diversion, one couldn’t help but wonder if the existence of either made any sense.

Public comment from the CFP selection committee confirmed the obvious, that in a season that started late and for some schools has been interrupted more than once by coronavirus-related issues, evaluating teams that have played different numbers of games with widely varying strength of schedule ratings, is especially fraught. But that problem isn’t going away. More games scheduled for this weekend have been cancelled, and Nick Saban, coach of the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, will not be on the sidelines for his team’s battle against archrival Auburn after testing positive for COVID.

Disruptions to the schedule also likely doom any chance of undefeated Cincinnati cracking the top four in the committee’s rankings and becoming the first team from outside a Power 5 conference to make the Playoff. The Bearcats placed seventh in this week’s ranking, but changes to Cincinnati’s schedule, forced by the pandemic, leave the team with just one regular season game left to play, while most other schools in the top ten have three contests remaining. With such a limited opportunity to impress the committee, it will take an unlikely combination of losses by multiple higher ranked teams for the Bearcats to crash the usual Power 5 postseason party.

The scattershot nature of the college football season should logically have served as a warning to the NCAA for basketball and other winter sports, but other than a modest shift in the starting date, the current plan is to follow Wednesday’s slightly delayed opening tilts with week upon week of games, all leading up to a planned tournament next March. Some adjustments are being made in terms of travel, and, if the regular season somehow goes according to plan, the usual scattering of opening round tournament sites across the nation will be replaced by a centralized March Madness, with all games played in a single geographic area, most likely greater Indianapolis. That location is favored because it’s already the scheduled host of next spring’s Final Four, and of course also happens to be home to NCAA headquarters.

But the entire effort, much like the college football season that is staggering towards its own conclusion, reeks of a desperate money grab. Already basketball games are being canceled and early season tournaments are shuffling participants because of infections among teams. It’s as if no one has taken notice of the dramatic spread of the virus across every corner of the country, with daily numbers that once would have been unfathomable now depressingly routine.

Bounced from the game after an ugly recruiting scandal at Louisville, Rick Pitino has recently returned to college hoops as the head coach at Iona. Proving that even a charlatan can have an original and smart idea, he proposed that the start of the season be delayed until March, with the tournament played in May. Pitino argues that a vaccine is clearly coming, and that unlike football, his sport is played indoors, making the likelihood of transmission that much greater. But the sport’s answer to Pitino can be seen in the list of scores from Wednesday’s games. So much for May Madness.

Like the conferences behind the College Football Playoff, the NCAA, which controls college basketball, sees nothing but the dollars associated with television contracts and postseason play. Dollars that will flow to conferences, individual schools, and, for basketball at least, to the Association. But in neither instance will the money trickle down to the athletes who are on the courts and fields playing the games and taking the special risks of this unique season. So those athletes entertain us, the games go on, coffers are fattened, and everyone keeps their fingers ever so tightly crossed.

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