On January 17th, 2021, I watched as Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball took on the University of Kentucky, who, at the time, was the 12th best team in the nation. Not only were they going against a top team in the country, but the Commodores also had only seven scholarship players available to play. Between COVID-19 regulations, injury, and opt-outs, the Commodores were significantly short-handed against the star-studded Kentucky team, and many thought that they would be blown out. However, the Commodores demonstrated their resilience and made this game quite competitive. In the end the Commodores unfortunately fell 80-73, though this did not feel like many of their typical SEC losses. Sophomore Koi Love and senior Chelsie Hall combined for 56 points, and sophomore Yaubryon Chambers flirted with a double-double. Although a loss, this game left me and many other fans with hope that this season would not end in the typical losing fashion for the Commodores.
This hope quickly dissipated. Just one day after the nail-biting game versus Kentucky, the Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball team announced the cancellation of the remainder of their season. Having only played eight games, the Commodores were slated to participate in nine more contests of SEC play. A spokesperson for the team stated that this cancellation was due to a combination of opt-outs, injury, and COVID-19 related circumstances, implying that if the team continued play, they would likely have had to continue with a short-handed, 7-woman roster.
When I first saw this news, I was incredibly disappointed. After the Kentucky game, it felt like this team was finally trending in the correct direction in terms of SEC play. I was shocked that this seven-person roster was able to compete the entire game versus the Wildcats, and although Kentucky was without their starting point guard, this game showed real potential. Love established that she is an elite scorer against the best teams in the nation, Hall continued to demonstrate her play-making ability, and Chambers proved to be a rebounding force. Initially, I was disappointed by the cancellation, but then it dawned on me: why is collegiate basketball being played during a pandemic anyway?
It is a myth that COVID only has severe implications for the elderly and immunocompromised. A new Ohio State study found that 15% of otherwise healthy college athletes were left with heart damage after a positive COVID-19 diagnosis. Specifically, the virus left these athletes with a heart disease called myocarditis, which is responsible for 7-20% of sudden cardiac deaths among student athletes. Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball was directly affected by this disease, as one of the year-long opt-outs was due to a myocarditis diagnosis. In a year in which we have seen hundreds of thousands dead, the men’s SEC preseason player of the year pass out mid-game due to COVID complications, and far too many other players diagnosed with a potentially life-changing heart disorder, there is absolutely no reasonable justification for the NCAA to insist on trying to maintain normalcy and have a basketball season. The truth is that we are not in “normal” times, and the NCAA continuing to operate as if we are is nothing but detrimental to the health and safety of student-athletes. I applaud the women’s basketball program for acknowledging the dangers of playing with a seven-person roster in a pandemic and choosing to cancel their season, but I wish that they did not have to make this decision themselves. I wish that the NCAA valued the health of student athletes enough to admit that it is far too dangerous to have college athletics right now.
To me, it seems very clear why the idea of playing collegiate basketball during a pandemic is unnecessarily dangerous, but that is because I view student athletes as human beings. The NCAA does not do this. The NCAA does not value any of the players themselves, but instead values the monetary gain that the players represent. Annually, the NCAA makes a total revenue of about one billion dollars. Too often the student-athletes are treated as if they are nothing more than a means to that billion, and I do not think that there is a greater example of this treatment than the NCAA’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The fact that the NCAA pushed so hard to continue playing an indoor sport in a pandemic is probably the most egregious example of this organization seeing student-athletes as dollar signs. The NCAA is using this season to attempt to compensate for its $702 million dollar loss from cancelling both men’s and women’s March Madness in 2020, but they are doing it by putting hundreds of student athletes, and especially basketball players who will compete indoors, at risk.
Study after study is emerging detailing all of the life-threatening side effects that can develop in the aftermath of COVID. These include but are not limited to kidney issues, long-term abnormal lung function, difficulties with concentration, and more that we have yet to learn about. Instead of listening to the scientists, they are choosing to put hundreds of young people at risk for these health issues, all for the sake of making a profit. In an effort to make themselves look better surrounding this issue, the organization gave players the opportunity to opt-out of play this year without losing a year of eligibility. However, choosing to opt-out has the potential to negatively impact the player’s future career. Instead of acknowledging at an organizational level that it is way too dangerous to play, the NCAA opted to place the pressure on individual players who would be risking hurting their chances at future careers by opting out.
It is also worth noting that 43% of Division 1 women’s basketball players, and 56% percent of men’s Division 1 basketball players are Black. In contrast, the NCAA president, the vast majority of the NCAA executives, and almost the entire SEC executive board is white. As much as I love both women’s and men’s basketball, I would have much rather gone without being able to watch college basketball this year if it meant a bunch of young, mostly Black, student athletes would not be risking their health every week so that the white NCAA and the SEC executives can make money.
I commend the Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball team for exercising their autonomy and acknowledging that not only was there a diminished roster, but also a major health concern in continuing play. This past season of not only college basketball, but all college athletics, has shown me that the NCAA does not value the livelihoods of student athletes. If they did, there would not be collegiate sports happening right now. This pandemic perfectly demonstrates that the NCAA executives are nothing more than a group of mostly white, greedy men who are willing to sacrifice the lives of these majority Black student athletes in order to make more money. I am going to miss watching Vanderbilt Women’s Basketball for the rest of the year; however, I am glad that they made the decision that was best for themselves and their teammates, as the NCAA and SEC surely do not act with the best interest of the players in mind.