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Bob Hohler

Lost fantasies, enduring hopes: colleges wrestle with competing amid COVID-19

Yale, which won the Ivy League championship in 2019, will hold onto that title for another year as the conference canceled the winter sports season again.
Yale, which won the Ivy League championship in 2019, will hold onto that title for another year as the conference canceled the winter sports season again.Jessica Hill/Associated Press

More evidence that pandemics are dream killers:

The Boston College men’s basketball team imagined basking in the turquoise comfort of the Caribbean, until organizers canceled this week’s annual Junkanoo Jam on Bimini island in the Bahamas.

The UMass Minutemen pictured settling into the soft sands of a Caribbean seashore, until Jersey Mike’s Jamaica Classic in Montego Bay this weekend was scratched.

There will be no trombones on Bourbon Street for the Northeastern men’s team. No Hawaiian leis and Pacific sunsets for the Providence men. The Tulane Classic in New Orleans was nixed, and the Maui Invitational has been rerouted to Asheville, N.C., in Appalachia.

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And the Northeastern women had a chance to spend part of Thanksgiving luxuriating poolside at a semi-tropical Hard Rock Cafe, until promoters called off the Cancun Challenge.

The culprit, of course, is COVID-19, which laid waste to the 2019-20 collegiate winter sports championship tournaments, most spring and fall sports, and now is forcing colleges and conferences to choose between killing their 2020-21 winter seasons — at a collective cost of billions of dollars — or daring to navigate the dangers of their student-athletes competing in a global pandemic.

Risks abound, as the UMass men’s team discovered. Rather than packing for a journey to the birthplace of reggae, the Minutemen are stuck in limbo, their season paused because of a positive COVID-19 test. Many other teams across New England and the nation have already had their schedules disrupted by the virus.

The Ivy League gauged the threat and chose caution over temptation. Concerned about the ``lasting health” of their student-athletes, the league’s presidents announced Nov. 12, less than two weeks before the NCAA-sanctioned Nov. 25 start date for Division 1 basketball, that the Ivy League would become the nation’s first Division 1 conference to ban all 2020-21 winter sports.

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Science, for the Ivies, trumped sports.

``Is it tough? Yes,” Harvard men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker said in an interview. ``But that doesn’t mean it isn’t right. We want everyone to be safe.”

The news was worse for Amaker’s players than their counterparts who lost early-season getaways to far-flung locales. For the Harvard men, not only will there be no traditional Crimson Madness season kickoff, there will be no season at all.

Amaker gave his players a night to absorb the news, then counseled them in a Zoom conference.

``It’s not their fault,” Amaker said. ``These are unprecedented times. We understand how devastated our players may feel, but let’s also have some semblance of perspective. We’re talking about playing basketball, when there are a whole lot of people going through so much pain, anguish, and sorrow in this horrific moment in our history.”

In March, when the Ivy League became the first Division 1 conference to shut down sports for the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year, major conferences across the country quickly followed. Not this time. The price has proved too high for some institutions.

While schools like Harvard, with its $42 billion endowment, and Yale, with its $30 billion to lean on, can absorb a season’s lost revenues, the economic pain of the pandemic has taken a punishing toll on many athletic departments, including UMass’s.

So, their games will go on, with modifications and innovations. And television revenues — the lifeblood of big-time collegiate sports — will continue to flow, providing urgent relief to many schools and conferences.

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The Atlantic 10, whose members include UMass and Rhode Island, wasted no time in March joining conferences that suspended athletic competition after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic and the Ivy League announced its decision.

This time, however, the A-10 has chosen to compete, like every other Division 1 conference but the Ivy League. The A-10 approved modified men’s and women’s basketball schedules with mandatory health and safety guidelines, but the conference canceled its indoor track and field championships and postponed its swimming and diving championships.

``The decision process was as gut-wrenching this time as it was back in March,” A-10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade said. ``At least now we’ve had time to put some thoughtful consideration into which safety protocols we absolutely cannot cut corners with. We cannot afford for our student-athletes to go off campus to environments that aren’t controlled and return to campus and run the risk of shutting an entire school down.”

T.J. Weeks and the UMass men's basketball team were supposed to play in a kickoff tournament before their season was paused due to COVID-19 concerns.
T.J. Weeks and the UMass men's basketball team were supposed to play in a kickoff tournament before their season was paused due to COVID-19 concerns.Jessica Hill/Associated Press

Several A-10 teams, including UMass and Rhode Island, signed up for one of the most ambitious early-season basketball innovations, a concept called Bubbleville. Organized in part by the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, 40 Division 1 teams, including BC, agreed to participate in an 11-day festival of tournaments and individual games for men and women at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut, starting Nov. 25.

Teams plan to travel from as far as Texas, Arizona, and Oregon to try to make the best of a bad situation. The Bubbleville plan, inspired by the NBA’s Orlando bubble, calls for teams to occupy separate floors in the casino’s hotel towers and to play in an arena without spectators. Other safety measures will be in place, and ESPN and Fox Sports have committed to televising select games.

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Yet the virus already has wreaked havoc. UMass, UMass Lowell, UConn, and Vermont are among the Bubbleville entrants that have paused operations because of COVID-19, diminishing or eliminating their chances of participating.

Still, five highly ranked teams — No. 2 Baylor, No. 3 Villanova, No. 4 Virginia, No. 18 Arizona State, and No. 20 Oregon — are due to attend. BC is scheduled to play Villanova Wednesday, with the winner advancing to the championship game of the Empire Classic against Baylor or Arizona State on Thanksgiving.

Bubbleville will kick off each team’s campaign for one of 68 berths in the Division 1 championship tournament in March. The virus already has prompted the NCAA to cancel its regional March Madness games, including first- and second-round contests in Providence. Under the new plan, all the games will be played in a bubble, likely in Indianapolis.

But as COVID-19 surges at a record pace across swaths of the nation, the question is, will the tournament survive?

The A-10 is hopeful. McGlade said the conference chose to proceed in part because medical authorities believe the coronavirus is rarely spread through sports competition, but rather through ``meeting, eating, and greeting,” or socializing. She spoke to the Globe shortly after the virus caused UMass to temporarily shut down its men’s basketball program.

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``It’s still going to be a bumpy road because we’re only as strong as our weakest link,” McGlade said, not referring directly to UMass. ``You can’t have two or three people make reckless decisions and put a whole program in jeopardy.”

Holy Cross is postponing its season until Jan. 2.
Holy Cross is postponing its season until Jan. 2.Barry Chin/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

For some planners, hope seems harder to summon. The Patriot League, whose basketball members include Boston University and Holy Cross, announced two days before the Ivy League’s decision that it would delay opening its basketball schedule until Jan. 2 for every member but Army and Navy.

``Starting the season Nov. 25, given the current conditions, just didn’t seem reasonable to us,” Patriot League commissioner Jennifer Heppel said.

Four of the league’s 10 members, including Holy Cross, started the fall semester with fully remote learning. Better to wait until January, the league concluded, when every member school is expected to return students to campus.

``Our mind-set right now is tethered to optimism around the second semester, even though as we sit here today there is not a whole lot to be optimistic about when it comes to the pandemic,’' Heppel said.

As for intercollegiate hockey, the Eastern College Athletic Conference has been decimated by the loss of six teams to the Ivy League shutdown and two more — Rensselaer and Union — to opt-outs. Still, the ECAC will skate on, opening its schedule Sunday with its four remaining teams: Clarkson, Colgate, Quinnipiac, and St. Lawrence.

Less fortunate was the popular Beanpot Tournament. With Harvard’s men and women off the ice, the tournament’s 69th annual edition, scheduled for February at the Garden, has fallen victim to COVID-19.

The event’s other traditional participants — BC, BU, and Northeastern — remain committed to competing in the Hockey East Conference.

Meanwhile, most of New England’s lower-division conferences have canceled their winter sports seasons. Without a pot of television money to pursue, the potential reward proved to be no match for the cost — and the risk.


Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.