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'Why Are We Playing College Basketball Right Now?': NCAA And COVID-19

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

March Madness will go on despite the pandemic. We're talking, of course, about college basketball. The men's and women's tournaments will mainly be played in two cities - Indianapolis and San Antonio. And, of course, where people gather, there are COVID rules and pretty complicated ones, given that there are 68 men's teams and 64 women's teams in this tournament. For more, we are joined now by Christine Brennan of USA Today.

Welcome.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Ailsa, great to be with you. Thanks.

CHANG: Great to have you. So I want to ask you because - you know, in December, you wrote this column that began with the words - I'm going to quote you here. "Why are we playing college basketball right now?" I mean, you noted that thousands of people were dying every day from COVID, and yet these colleges and universities were still playing. You wrote, what is wrong with them? What is wrong with us? And so I'm curious, Christine. What is your reaction now that we know how the rest of the season is playing out?

BRENNAN: Certainly, that was a time when the coaches themselves, some of the top men's coaches in the game, Ailsa, were actually asking the same question. So I was mimicking them. They were saying, let's push it back. Why not have May Madness instead of March Madness? What's happened, of course, is that some of them have slogged through. Other teams, like Duke, wasn't able to play - the men's team wasn't able to play in the ACC tournament. And Duke's women's team actually closed up shop months ago and just didn't play. They've been wobbling to the finish. It has not been easy. We're talking 18-to-22-year-olds - lots of questions for the history books on all of that.

CHANG: Yeah.

BRENNAN: Nonetheless, they've been able to put it together and have protocols in place that they believe - and they, the NCAA - believe that they're going to be able to pull this off.

CHANG: Yeah.

BRENNAN: So as a journalist, of course, here we are. So I'm happy to discuss this part of it. It is...

CHANG: Yeah, let's talk about...

BRENNAN: ...A little surprising it took this long. Yes.

CHANG: ...The protocols that you just mentioned because I understand the NCAA - they're not going to be creating the same kind of bubble that the NBA used for its season, right? What are the protocols here?

BRENNAN: That's right. They're calling it a controlled environment, much more than a bubble - not bubbles. You will have teams staying on the same floor of a hotel. They will not be able to - the players won't be able to interact with family or friends. They will be wearing contact-tracing bracelets of some kind of devices. Those worked very well with the National Football League, so there's the hope that that will work as well. You will have - a key part of this - 34-person traveling parties. Each school will have 34 people they designate. That includes players and coaches. And every single one must have seven consecutive days of negative test results before they can set foot on the court, go in those arenas. And so that's a key fact. And that's - those seven days are starting now. The clock is ticking on those days.

CHANG: OK. And I understand that if a team doesn't have at least five eligible healthy players to start a game, it'll be classified as a no contest, meaning the opposing team moves on to the next round. Do you think we're actually going to see that scenario play out in this tournament?

BRENNAN: I think it's unlikely, Ailsa, only because these players have been doing this and teams and universities for months now. Incredible hardship on these young athletes - many of them have been holed up in a dorm room and just go to practice, go to games and go right back to their room. And so they've learned to live this way and to survive this way. And it's really - you know, it's all about the money. It's a TV show, basically, for fans...

CHANG: Yeah.

BRENNAN: ...And for universities. And so I think it's - we will see most of them be able to carry it off. Obviously, five is the minimum. You have to five players, and that would be quite a...

CHANG: (Laughter) To play the game.

BRENNAN: ...Dramatic thing if they...

CHANG: Right.

BRENNAN: ...Don't have five.

CHANG: Well, real quick, I mean, we've already seen two big teams - Kansas University and the University of Virginia - pull out of conference tournaments because of COVID cases. Do you think that's going to happen in this tournament?

BRENNAN: It could. I mean, one interesting note just breaking now - Geno Auriemma, the head coach of the UConn Women's - Connecticut women's basketball team, No. 1 ranked...

CHANG: Yeah.

BRENNAN: ...Has just tested positive for COVID. And so he'll be away from his team for March 24. So obviously, this pandemic is not over...

CHANG: Right.

BRENNAN: ...And really doesn't care about basketball (laughter).

CHANG: Christine Brennan is a sports columnist for USA Today.

Thank you so much.

BRENNAN: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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