Just because Mike Krzyzewski says it, the entire college basketball world is required by statute to come to a screeching halt so Very Serious People can parse What It All Means. This is true even when Krzyzewski openly pondering the moral dilemma of playing college basketball during an uncontrolled pandemic Tuesday night wasn’t actually anything that hasn’t already been said.
It was the same thing hundreds of his peers and thousands of his colleagues in college athletics have been saying, or feeling, since July. But such is the stature of the Duke coach’s bully pulpit that his former assistant Jeff Capel can say essentially the same thing and more in Pittsburgh on Monday — “I don’t know why you cancel it in March, but you say it’s OK to do it right now” — only to have his comments disappear like a stone dropped in a pond, while Krzyzewski admitting “I don’t think it feels right to anybody” becomes a matter of intense national debate.
College basketball in particular is at an inflection point, trying desperately to scrape its way through to March and the financial imperative of the NCAA tournament while Rick Pitino and others have called for the season to be pushed back.
Krzyzewski will face the same slings (“Is he just doing it to distract from his disappointing team?”) and arrows (“coach k your a coronabro lol”) from social-media “experts” and coronavirus-denier media grifters as anyone else who has dared question the rumbling steamroller of college athletics as it proceeds forward, but he was merely giving voice to a sentiment shared by a great silent many.
There has been a shared general queasiness about this whole operation, a sense of uncomfortability around the blatant exploitation of college students to grease the wheels of the giant economic engine that is college sports. That feeling of being a part of something vaguely unseemly, the one Krzyzewski expressed Tuesday night, has never quite gone away.
And yes, a great many people would lose their jobs if these games aren’t played. And yes, the players desperately want to play them. And yes, even Krzyzewski has said the NCAA tournament must be played for financial reasons. Everyone understands that. It’s OK to be conflicted. Many people who draw their paycheck from college athletics certainly are, and not just vocal media personalities like Jay Bilas, who has shown no hesitation to make a meal of the hand that feeds him, and did so again on ESPN during Duke’s loss to Illinois on Tuesday.
It is a complicated quandary that taps into emotions as much as finances. There is no right or wrong here, no black or white. There are only shades of gray, and Krzyzewski dabbled in a nice charcoal heather Tuesday night.
There wasn’t much of this during the fall, since college football coaches and fans alike aren’t exactly cursed with self-awareness, but college basketball has always had a more thoughtful ethos, a sport where idealists like Dean Smith and John Thompson are admired, not treated as outliers or worse.
Basketball is also proving much more difficult to actually, you know, play than football was. Hours after Krzyzewski spoke, a full quarter of the ACC was on pause. N.C. State shut down its program Wednesday, joining Louisville and Virginia and Wake Forest and dozens of programs across the country in coronavirus limbo.
Meanwhile, there are players who won’t get to see their families for the holidays and international players who haven’t been home in more than a year while game after game falls off the schedule. And that’s before you even consider the basic unanswered questions about safety and health and fairness — all of which inevitably end up circling back to the complete untethering, now and forever, of athletics from academics.
“I don’t think anyone can say anymore that these young men are amateurs,” Capel told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “That’s out the window. They’re not. They absolutely aren’t.”
The Ivy League took one look at all of this and walked away, shaking its collective head. Everyone else is hurtling ahead in a car on a snowy road with an iced-over windshield, hoping for the best.
That doesn’t sit right with a lot of people, and Krzyzewski is the latest to join a chorus that was hushed when it gave voice to these concerns over the summer. But where Krzyzewski goes — and Pitino and Capel and others go — others are sure now to follow.