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Matter: Coronavirus chaos highlights NCAA incompetence

Matter: Coronavirus chaos highlights NCAA incompetence

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Football is in the air

Missouri Tigers head coach Eliah Drinkwitz yells as quarterback Shawn Robinson (3) passes by during warmups at the start of a practice on the football practice fields in the Mizzou Athletic Training Complex in Columbia on Wednesday, March 11, 2020. Photo by Colter Peterson, cpeterson@post-dispatch.com.

From Alabama’s Nick Saban to Missouri’s Eli Drinkwitz, the football coaches across the Southeastern Conference were supposed to be in Atlanta this week for preseason media days to break down highly important topics such as their pivotal competition at right guard.

Instead, they’re on their knees begging fans to put on a mask.

Drinkwitz even wore a black Mizzou face-covering to open Wednesday’s Zoom media session.

“To prove it can be done,” he said. “I want to reiterate we need to mask up.”

It might be too little, too late to salvage the 2020 season from the coronavirus hit list. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is on record saying we need to see positive public health trends over the next couple weeks to have a season.

Spoiler: The opposite of that is unfolding in most of the country, notably in the SEC’s 11-state footprint.

Otherwise, the only hope might be a Hail Mary in the form of regulated, mandatory testing procedures.

The conference commissioners are working together (finally) to establish some standardized testing protocols. After being grilled during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing earlier this month, NCAA leaders are stepping up (finally) and could offer more than admirable but feckless guidelines.

There’s a thought among athletics directors that teams could be required to test athletes weekly, perhaps twice a week, including an antibody test 24 hours before competition.

If so, it’s about damn time.

But why exactly are we just now scrambling for solutions in July? As recent as late May some schools planned to only test athletes showing symptoms of COVID-19, Mizzou included. Thankfully, campus leadership urged MU to test every athlete before they started on-campus workouts. Good call, considering almost every positive case from Mizzou athletes, nine as of last week, was detected before they took part in workouts.

But where has the NCAA been in all of this? The last few months have reminded us that the NCAA serves two major roles in college sports: party planner and hall monitor. The suits in Indianapolis are glad to host your softball tournament while sanctioning your basketball program to smithereens for improper benefits, but when it comes to making timely and vital policy to protect the health of its most prized — and unpaid — commodities, its cumbersome legislative process and fear of liability make that difficult.

After talking to ADs around the country this week, here are the problems from their viewpoint: For one, there’s no unifying, galvanizing voice at the top. NCAA president Mark Emmert just doesn’t command respect from the membership.

From there, the influx of revenue creates such a disparity between not only the Power Five and Group of Five conferences but within each league. Mizzou lives in the same conference as Alabama, Louisiana State and Florida but in another galaxy financially. The system has created so many massive chasms on multiple layers, and without true leadership, there’s no common vision or goals.

We saw that in March when conferences acted on their own to shut down activities and pull out of events with little semblance of cohesion.

Then again last week, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren stunned the other conferences and announced league-only contests for the fall. Why the rush? Why not work in tandem with the other conferences? The Big Ten said conference-only scheduling creates flexibility in the calendar but some also implied a need for level testing protocols — as if other conferences couldn’t match the Big Ten’s standards.

“To me that’s insulting,” one Group of Five AD told me this week, “We absolutely plan on testing each week. It’s like (the Big Ten believes) we won’t take that step or we can’t afford to take that step. But we have to.”

Meanwhile, the SEC and the Big 12 are going to punt and play defense — for now.

What about pushing football to the spring? That’s troublesome. One AD said that a spring schedule might compel TV networks to renegotiate their contracts because the spring inventory doesn’t have the same value as Saturdays in the fall. Plus, why would NFL prospects jeopardize their health with an unpaid season so close to the draft?

All of which underscores the need for more oversight and leadership from the NCAA. When college sports needed one vision, one voice, one leader, the system failed.

Here’s an idea: Hire a czar to keep the leagues in line and play nicely together. I nominate Oklahoma’s Joe Castiglione, or, as PowerMizzou’s Gabe DeArmond tweeted this week, Iowa State’s Jamie Pollard, who’s been in front of this issue as strongly as any AD in the country. Another candidate: former XFL commissioner Oliver Luck. I hear he’s got some free time.

Back to the masks. What if wearing a mask hadn’t turned into such a political statement from the start? Earlier this week, one AD shared this thought: If we weren’t in a presidential election year, maybe the “wear a mask” campaign would have resonated earlier without all the resistance and rancor. Then maybe instead of the season’s survival we’d be fussing over Mizzou’s left guard battle.

Sounds refreshing, doesn’t it?

But here we are, relying on the NCAA to launch a Hail Mary.

“War games are saying we’re at DEFCON 1 now,” an AD said this week. “We’re at a point where we have to do something if we’re going to have a chance.”

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