Smaller Conferences Ready for Basketball With Limited Testing Resources

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Schools from smaller athletic conferences are facing an uphill battle when it comes to preparing for competition amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Whereas the Power Five schools had to get ready sooner in order to play fall football, for smaller conferences the upcoming basketball season will be their first test in how to keep players safe.

On Tuesday the NCAA unveiled guidelines and suggestions regarding game day and testing protocols that the organization has spent the last few months preparing. Measures taken to keep student-athletes safe on game days include testing three times a week, social distancing, mask-wearing, cleaning and disinfecting protocols and even specifics such as how the scorer’s table should be laid out.

“I think the NCAA has done a good job based upon the environment in the pandemic,” said Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference commissioner Dr. Dennis Thomas. “You’re talking about establishing a protocol when each state has different protocols and the state and local protocols supersede everybody else.”

In the continued absence of a national testing standard, the NCAA’s statement said that “schools are encouraged to proactively pursue discussions with local hospitals and/or local [Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments]-certified labs…. Membership is encouraged to work closely with school and conference medical and operations personnel to proactively identify and arrange for necessary testing paradigms that can be adequately supported through available school, local and conference resources.”

The challenging part for schools outside of the Power Five is money. For example, at over $76 million, Wake Forest has the lowest athletics revenue in the ACC. Less than an hour away, the MEAC’s biggest school, North Carolina A&T State University (NCAT), has a athletic revenue of $14.7 million. Because Wake Forest has an athletic budget that is five times more than NCAT’s, it’ll have the means to access more resources to find a testing partner.

Not that Wake Forest has needed to, because the ACC partnered with healthcare lab MAKO Medical in September. Smaller conferences must find their own partners and then foot the bill, and their available resources differ. The ACC’s annual revenue in 2018 was $464.7 million, while the MEAC’s was $12.4 million. Similarly, the Big Sky Conference’s revenue that year was $11million, the Ohio Valley Conference’s was $7.6 million and the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s was $7.1 million. Thomas told Sportico that his conference has “talked with several vendors as it pertains to the different types of testing” but has yet to secure a testing partner.

From the student-athlete perspective, most are accepting the risks of playing to compete in the sports that they love.

“When everything began, I didn’t understand what they were doing but when the NCAA gave winter sports athletes the opportunity to get their year back, that was huge,” said Jayla Jones-Pack, a senior on the NCAT women’s basketball team. “I trust the NCAA’s protocol and how they’re trying to handle things…. We want to play every game that’s on our schedule, so we have to wear our masks and remember social distancing and be mindful.”

The NCAA and its member conferences and schools have cautiously restored the greenlight to competition as understanding of the virus grows, but the glaring wealth gap among conferences and schools means the NCAA will have a hard time keeping everyone equally safe.

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