GREENSBORO — More than three months after N.C. A&T sent a letter to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference questioning the COVID-19 testing that resulted in the Aggies’ expulsion from its men’s basketball tournament, the MEAC still has not responded.
A&T athletics director Earl Hilton said Friday that he has no regrets about the way he and the university handled the situation in March, “but if I was doing it today, I’d go scorched earth.”
A&T had announced in February 2020 that it was leaving the MEAC at the end of the 2020-21 school year to join the Big South Conference. Hilton said the university has paid the entirety of its exit fee of $250,000 to the MEAC and “deliberately distinguished” its dissatisfaction with the way COVID-19 testing was handled from its financial obligations to the conference, because “I don’t want to play that kind of game.”
A&T entered its final MEAC men’s basketball tournament as the top seed from the South Division and a favorite to reach the NCAA Tournament as conference champion, but when an assistant coach tested positive for COVID-19, the team was sent home from Norfolk, Va., on March 11 without playing a game.
The assistant coach, who has not been identified because of medical privacy laws, had been negative for the coronavirus every day from March 6 through March 10 in antigen testing conducted at the A&T Student Health Center. He also was negative for COVID-19 in a more accurate PCR test administered March 8.
In testing done March 11 for the MEAC by SafeSite after the Aggies arrived in Norfolk for the tournament, the same assistant coach was positive for the coronavirus in three tests, administered at 12:34 p.m. (PCR), 4:32 (PCR) and 4:34 (antigen).
After A&T’s team was sent back to Greensboro, an antigen test and a PCR test were administered to the assistant coach on March 12 and another PCR test was administered on March 15. All three were negative for COVID-19.
Everyone in the A&T men’s basketball program, including players, coaches and staff, was given antigen and PCR tests March 15 and all of the results were negative for the coronavirus. No one was symptomatic.
When the letter signed by Hilton and A&T Chancellor Harold Martin was sent to the MEAC on April 8, the assistant coach remained free of the virus.
“When it happened, I was looking at every avenue in terms of what we could do,” said Will Jones, the Aggies’ head coach. “I just wanted our guys to have a chance to play. … Not even being able to get a look at (the testing) by an outside agency was tough. I’m just glad that Earl, the chancellor and everyone involved in the university’s leadership knew it was a serious matter.”
In their letter to the MEAC, Hilton and Martin point out that the COVID-19 infection persists for seven to 14 days, so “it is a medical impossibility for an individual to be both infection free for the week prior to and the week immediately following the MEAC testing event, and also be infected on the day of the MEAC testing.”
Hilton and Martin also say in the letter that “it is also statistically improbable for one individual to have three consecutive false positive COVID-19 tests absent some error or negligence in how the tests were administered, analyzed or interpreted.”
Hilton and Martin concluded the three-page letter sent in April by writing: “We do not believe that anyone at SafeSite or the MEAC acted intentionally to disadvantage A&T. We also acknowledge that the MEAC cannot undo much of the damage caused by this blunder. We do believe, however that there are steps the MEAC should take to avoid this kind of tragedy moving forward …”
They requested a meeting with the MEAC’s Council of Chief Executive Officers to discuss how the conference “would propose to redress these concerns.”
As of Friday afternoon, conference officials still had not responded. MEAC Commissioner Dennis Thomas, who is retiring in December, held a Zoom conference Wednesday to talk about his time with the conference.
“I can assure you that all of our member institutions were apprised of the cadence and protocol that would be implemented” for all championships, Thomas said when asked about testing at the men’s basketball tournament.
When asked about the letter sent to the MEAC by A&T, Thomas said the letter “will be addressed internally with the Council of Chief Executives at the appropriate time.” Pressed about when “the appropriate time” would be, Thomas said “very soon,” but he declined to be more specific.
Hilton said A&T does not plan to seek any legal redress with its former conference because it wouldn’t be worth the effort and the expense.
“At this point, I don’t know that there’s a lot I expect,” he added. “In March, the hope was let’s figure this out, let’s get better, let’s improve (the testing policy), let’s not do this again because we still had championships in front of us with student-athletes competing” in spring sports.
That hasn’t happened more than four months after COVID-19 testing disqualified A&T from the MEAC men’s basketball tournament.
“It puts a sour taste in the mouth of everyone at A&T,” Jones said. But his players and his staff are moving on as members of the Big South.
“Our program is focused,” Jones said. “We’re locked in as we go into a new league. We’re still hungry and we want to get this program back to the NCAA Tournament.”
Contact Joe Sirera at 336-373-7034 and follow @JoeSireraSports on Twitter.