Will coronavirus threat sideline older coaches like Mike Krzyzewski, Roy Williams, Jim Boeheim?
An expert on pandemics says 'high-risk' coaches, just like high-risk teachers, should consider taking the year off
Slowly but surely, with each passing day, more and more people -- from the President of the United States on down -- are starting to realize COVID-19 is not just going to magically disappear. And most scientists don't believe we'll have a vaccine available for 12 to 18 months. So now the challenge is trying to figure out how to live with the coronavirus, without a vaccine, for what is likely to be an extended period of time.
It's undeniably tricky.
There are no obviously great plans.
Which is why school officials all over the country are consulting with medical experts to see what opening campuses for the fall semester will require. Consistently, what they're being told is that social-distancing will be necessary in classrooms. And experts are also suggesting it might not be safe for older teachers and professors to return to work, especially those with underlying medical conditions.
"Students are going to be fine," President Donald Trump said last week. "[But] if you have a teacher who's 65 or 70 years old, and they have diabetes, they're going to have to sit it out for a while."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "people 65 years and older" are among those who are "at high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19." That's why doctors, and even the President, are suggesting older instructors might not return to campus when students are initially brought back.
Which brings me to college basketball.
This is a sport where the coaches at some of the top programs -- most notably 76-year-old Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, 74-year-old Mike Krzyzewski at Duke and 70-year-old Roy Williams at North Carolina -- are, according to the CDC, "at high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19." So if it's being deemed unsafe for older teachers to return to their classrooms, logically speaking, here's my question: Why would it be safe for older coaches like Boeheim, Krzyzewski and Williams to return to their locker rooms?
"I don't think it will be safe," answered Dr. Jon McCullers, the pediatrician-in-chief at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital and associate dean at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center College of Medicine.
McCullers is an expert on influenza and pandemics, one who is leading a task force to study how to safely reopen the University of Tennessee's campus in the fall. He told me this weekend that among his recommendations will be that professors 60 and up work remotely or take a year off. And yes, he'd recommend the same thing for coaches in the same age group.
It's easy to understand why.
If everything goes as planned, roughly 20,000 students will return to Syracuse's campus this fall. Some of them will bring the virus. Others will contract the virus while there. Either way, COVID-19 will be on and around that campus and (presumably) every other campus in America. That's why older professors are already being urged to take the semester off -- because while it's true that nearly every student who gets the virus will survive, the odds are less good for somebody 65 or older.
Now think about Boeheim, a cancer survivor.
Is it really going to be safe for him this season -- assuming this season is played and no vaccine exists -- to be in a locker room with more than a dozen players who are bouncing around campus all day everyday? What about being in a huddle during a timeout? And the same questions, for some of the same reasons, can be asked of Krzyzewski, Williams and any other coach in the "high-risk" category.
The ACC alone has five coaches age 70 or older.
Houston Rockets coach Mike D'Antoni, 69, has already said he plans to coach in a mask if the NBA season resumes, but that's based on the idea that the NBA will create something of a bubble that's as safe as it can possibly be with testing happening nonstop. College coaches and college athletes are not going to live in anything resembling a bubble, and, at this point, there's no reason to think every athletic department in the country will have as many tests as a professional sports league. So McCullers believes it would be wise for older coaches to consider stepping away from the sport or explore ways to coach with social-distancing. When asked what the latter might look like, he said a "high-risk" coach could maybe avoid locker rooms completely, run practice from a distance, observe games from a luxury box, so on and so forth. But, McCullers said, the idea of a 70 year-old coaching in any sort of traditional way seems risky.
Obviously, no coach in the "high-risk" category needs to make a declaration about his future today because it remains unclear if there will even be a college basketball season that starts on time. But assuming the season does begin in the winter and without a vaccine available, some of the biggest names in the sport are probably going to have some tough decisions to make.
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