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Column: The catch-22 of Duke women's basketball canceling its season

<p>Duke became the first Power Five program to opt out of the 2020-21 season Friday.</p>

Duke became the first Power Five program to opt out of the 2020-21 season Friday.

Let’s get one thing straight: the Blue Devils made the right choice.

By Dec. 6, nearly a quarter of all NCAA women’s basketball games had been canceled or postponed, and that timeframe doesn't even include when Duke paused team activities Dec. 16 due to two non-player positive COVID-19 cases within the program. Now, by opting out of the rest of the season, the Blue Devil players are putting both themselves and the team staff in the best and healthiest positions going forward.

It is remarkable that they were able to get to this point. All acclaim to head coach Kara Lawson, director of basketball operations Kate Senger, senior deputy AD Nina King and AD Kevin White for listening to the players and allowing them to make an impossibly difficult decision. College athletics isn’t quite known for allowing its athletes to have much of a voice, making this decision a breath of fresh air, and one that shows a great deal of faith in a first-year head coach in Lawson.

Financially, this decision doesn’t affect too much for Duke Athletics. In 2018-19, the most recent year for which we have financial data, Blue Devil women’s basketball accounted for a bit over $3,900,000 in revenue for Duke, about 3% of the revenue from all teams.

But Duke women’s basketball doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Lawson’s Dec. 9 statement in which she said "I don’t think we should be playing right now" came a day after Mike Krzyzewski's monologue deliberating over the merits of playing basketball during a pandemic. Meanwhile, men’s college basketball has been and still is facing mass postponements and cancelations.

On the other hand, NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline told USA Today in October that “we're probably at a place where 20% to 30% of Division III schools may not survive this pandemic.” If the NCAA can’t get its usual March Madness revenue—over 70% of its overall revenue—we’re looking past the upper end of Hainline’s estimate, and likely at swaths of mid-majors shutting their doors.

So we’re left with a textbook catch-22: the players should be put in the healthiest positions possible, but the NCAA and colleges themselves desperately need the revenue from college basketball.

A catch-22, by definition, cannot be solved using the logic that got you into such a problem in the first place. Yossarian can only escape the machinery of war by deserting; players can’t preserve both their health and their career prospects by simply individually opting in or out. As argued in a Time op-ed just this past week—one co-authored by Nathan Kalman-Lamb, a lecturing fellow at Duke—the only option is an organized effort, either to postpone the season as a whole or to compensate players for the risks they’re assuming. 

Never has the NCAA been so mask-off about “the student-athlete model,” as uncompensated players not old enough to rent a car are away from their families for months, many of them missing Christmas and New Year’s, while asked to be frontline workers in a dangerous environment. Either you stop putting players’ welfares at risk or you compensate them for that risk—there’s only two morally defensible options. Duke athletes have the benefit of one of the safest locations in the United States and the consultation of a leading medical facility, yet women’s basketball still had to pause activities from an outbreak because they are left to regularly expose themselves to teams in decidedly more harmful situations.

It’s in Duke’s best interest, both in women’s and men’s basketball, to opt out of the season themselves but have other schools continue playing—it behooves the Blue Devils to ensure their own health, while other teams maintain the TV deals and secure the March Madness revenue that keeps this whole affair afloat. Likewise, other schools that don’t have to worry about their own funding or their conference’s funding should be considering opting out. But in this Prisoner’s Dilemma, every school acting on its own self-interest would result in each of the biggest programs pulling out, crippling the financial pillars the NCAA needs to survive. As is the case for players, the only way to break the catch-22 is collective action.

But collegiate athletics are not organized in a way that conveniences collectivism—the NCAA is notorious for draconian punishments, while programs that have yet to catch its ire pray they remain out of sight. Players have attempted to organize recently, and were met with mixed results, and face an incoming presidential administration that is reluctant to effect major change in the organizations that could alleviate this problem. 

The Blue Devils do not find themselves as mere victims of happenstance, but scapegoats of circumstances that were always inevitable. In a system in which collective action is the only way out, but collectivism has been rendered unworkable, it was guaranteed that the pandemic’s lifespan in the United States wouldn't be short, and that the NCAA was always going to charge headfirst into the abyss. 

Duke’s players made the only morally defensible decision possible, in a world in which pronouncing wellbeing to be paramount only serves to underscore the impossibility of such a target.

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