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HBCU Basketball

COVID-19 strategies keep HBCU basketball programs playing

Grambling, Howard, Texas Southern, Alabama State, Morgan State and Dillard use similar plans

As the COVID-19 pandemic imposes its will on college sports, the basketball programs at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are navigating the maze of protocols and processes needed to play safely this season.

Two weeks into the season, every week is a scheduling adventure.

“This thing is changing by the minute,” Grambling State women’s basketball coach Fred Murray said at the start of the regular season. “Not by the hour, not by the day, not by the week – it’s changing by the minute, and so we just know we have to be prepared to adjust on the fly.”

The adjustments by the programs in the NCAA Division I Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), the Division II Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) and Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC) and NAIA caused the delayed start of college basketball season but have not slowed.

Early November saw the CIAA and SIAC call off nonconference games and announce they would begin their conference-only seasons in January. This week, Virginia State of the CIAA became the first school in those two conferences to opt out of basketball completely.

The MEAC and SWAC had Power 5 “guarantee” games canceled for coronavirus-related reasons and scrambled to fill their nonconference schedules.

The Jackson State men saw their highly anticipated season-opening three-game tournament at Mississippi canceled after an outbreak at Ole Miss. On Dec. 1, the Prairie View men withdrew from a tournament in Louisville, Kentucky, after three games because of a positive test in the program. The Alcorn State men lost one game when Kent State had a player test positive, and another against Dayton when one of its own players did. The Texas Southern women have yet to play this week because of schedule disruptions.

The MEAC had two members call off winter and spring sports altogether, as Maryland Eastern Shore joined Bethune-Cookman in shutting down for the academic year. Florida A&M’s women called off their season as well. Norfolk State barred fans for its nonconference home games, including the first visit by in-state rival Old Dominion since 1969, a Dec. 2 game the Spartans lost 80-66.

The rest of the schools conducted practices and planned housing, travel, and games and attendance based on recommendations by their conferences, universities, states, federal guidelines, and the NCAA and NAIA. Their decisions were made in collaboration with experts from all over their campuses and university systems, in athletics, academic support, operations, administration, the sciences and mental health.

For Grambling, Alabama State and Texas Southern in the SWAC, Howard and Morgan State in the MEAC and Dillard in the NAIA’s Gulf Coast Athletic Conference (GCAC), their health and safety protocols were similar, with a few variations brought on by necessity.

Grambling State

The NCAA updated its memo on “Resocialization of Collegiate Sport: Developing Standards for Practice and Competition” on Nov. 13, less than two weeks before much of the nation was scheduled to start the season. The memo (which classifies basketball as a Tier 1 activity, at the highest level of exposure) explains the pros and cons of wearing masks while playing, both in games and practices.

Grambling appears to be in the minority of teams that has its basketball players wear masks throughout practice, although they won’t do so in games.

The coaches and administrators know it’s tough on the players, said athletic director David Ponton. He said he tells them it’s “a training mechanism – it gets you ready for when you don’t have the mask on. So if you can go this hard with the mask on, imagine what you can do without the mask on.” Ponton chuckled, adding, “I use that on them all the time.”

All the off-court staff, including coaches, trainers, equipment managers and those at the scorer’s table, must wear masks. Social distancing on the bench and elsewhere in the facility is enforced, with players assigned their own seats, towels, water bottles and other equipment that cannot be shared. The court and everything in it is sanitized between practices for both teams.

The SWAC and the state of Louisiana allow 25% capacity for game attendance, so Grambling will allow fans for its home games, just at a distance from the court. The bleachers at Hobdy Assembly Center will be pushed back to prevent seating close to the court and scorer’s table. “When the fans come,” Murray said, “they will have to be in the second and third level, which is a long way away from us, from the playing surface.”

Temperatures will be checked upon entry. To eliminate possible bottlenecks, gates will open 30 minutes earlier than usual, and fans will use only certain entrances and can use all the exits afterward to reduce potential crowding. Online tickets will be preferred, with the plan for tickets to be all-virtual by the time football season starts in February.

The NCAA recommends (not requires, as the wording in the memos has been specific) that players be tested three times a week. Grambling adheres to those guidelines.

Road trips, of course, are an additional challenge. The SWAC emphasized avoiding air travel if possible when making up its schedule, so the women’s team went to Gainesville by bus – 10 hours each way – for its opener against Florida on Nov. 25. It was the team’s longest scheduled trip of the season. The protocol for the many bus trips is well-defined: Travel parties are kept as small as possible, each person has their own seat, and Grambling put cleaning guidelines into its contract with its bus company.

The men, though, played their first two games in Arizona, at Phoenix’s Grand Canyon University on Nov. 25, and at Arizona two days later. The Wildcats canceled their own Nov. 25 season opener against Northern Arizona two days before, because of a positive test by that opponent. The Tigers remained on the schedule (and lost).

“Arizona has been tremendous as far as assuring us of the safety of our student-athletes, from the time that we get there to the time that we leave,” Ponton said. “It will be their priority just as it is for their own student-athletes.” In part, that means they will be tested upon their arrival, tested before the game and will test upon request before departing for home.

Murray’s women’s team, meanwhile, made it through its trips to Florida and Louisiana Tech safely, then saw its home opener, scheduled for Dec. 4, canceled when Northwestern State went into quarantine after a late-November positive test.

On campus, the early end to the fall semester in deference to the virus has benefited basketball and other sports, as the athletes will stay on campus during the break and during the season up until the early part of conference play. “Semibubble” and “mini-bubble” are the terms used most by schools to describe the conditions created to keep athletes as isolated as possible. It means trusting the players to resist the impulses most college students normally feel, including simply hanging out with friends.

“You kind of create a sense of ownership, so to speak,” Ponton said, “where it is my responsibility to keep my teammate, my coach and my staff members and those support staff members safe.”

Howard University

Unlike the SWAC schools and several fellow MEAC members, Howard’s campus has been closed this semester with students, including athletes, taking classes online and living off campus. Also unlike many HBCUs, Howard was the de facto host of an early-season tournament, the relocated Paradise Jam (traditionally held in the Virgin Islands), starting the day after Thanksgiving at Washington’s downtown convention center.

The men’s tournament – the college debut of celebrated recruit Makur Maker – was structured to minimized risk, said athletic director Kery Davis, with the three visiting teams staying at the attached hotel, arriving the day before and leaving immediately afterward, and entering and exiting the game site without going outside. Teams were tested upon arrival and again before each game.

“It was the promoters’ idea to create a kind of a bubble,” Davis said, echoing the operative word of the college season.

Howard’s men’s nonconference schedule, he said, is nearly all at sites in Washington, for nine of the current 10 games. The home games – including a marquee game in Burr Gymnasium against Notre Dame on Martin Luther King Jr. Day – will take place without fans, in accord with Washington policies governing crowd sizes. For home games and the Paradise Jam, Howard had to submit its safety protocols, “down to the details of what disinfectants we would use and what our mask usage would be.”

“The protocols are strict,” Davis said, “but they’re as strict as we are because we share the same goals – especially to not be part of a superspreader event in the District of Columbia.”

Not surprisingly, Howard’s early season was still disrupted by the virus, including the Paradise Jam, in which Northeastern announced it was delaying the start of winter sports, and was replaced by Division II Queens University of Charlotte. Its game against LaSalle was canceled last Tuesday, as was a game this week against Elon, which had a positive test. Two women’s games have also been canceled so far, against Towson and Georgetown.

The practice processes at Howard are familiar, except that players have not worn masks for practice, but will for games. Coaches, managers, trainers and other staff will wear masks at all times. Players also have assigned seats at proper social distances, and are encouraged to wash their hands, use hand sanitizer, not share water bottles, towels or snacks, and to wear masks when they are not active on the court.

On-campus housing, including the athletic dorms, are all closed, and the players on both teams live off campus, with foreign students, some graduate students and others in special circumstances. That is essentially their bubble, with “strict protocols,” Davis said, including the recommended testing three times a week.

It has been an adjustment for all the players, Davis said, but he sees how the freshmen athletes are in a unique situation: “They’re not getting the opportunity to have their first real college experience, and they’re coming off a spring [in high school] where they missed their proms and their graduations.

“I also feel for our seniors,” he added. “This is their last time around, and they have to experience it under these circumstances.”

Alabama State

The Hornets teams are not preparing for season openers, long road trips or payday games and all the potential complications that they bring. They made their call on that in mid-November, announcing that they were foregoing nonconference play completely and only playing SWAC competition in early January.

Contract tracing in the men’s program in October led to quarantining, and with chances to practice and condition for games this month disappearing, athletic director Jennifer Lynne Williams decided to err on the side of caution, even knowing the financial hit the loss of some payday games would mean.

“We were really looking forward to playing,” Williams said, but after scrambling to fill the schedule with the pandemic wreaking havoc on other programs, then having her programs touched by it, “it really didn’t make sense to go on the road to play for $50,000 in an empty arena, to expose [the players] to travel and the other threats. At the end of the day, it was not worth it.”

That decision simplified travel most of all: The SWAC, MEAC and the other HBCU conferences scheduled the season with bus trips and few overnight stays. As of this week, Alabama State was the only SWAC or MEAC program to go to conference-only scheduling. But, Williams said, things change so fast that they might lose their unique status at any time.

The school put out a 36-page guide for athletic program protocols in July, compiled by a 16-member Return to Play committee. Even that has been tweaked since it was first distributed. For now, attendance will be allowed for home games, but Williams did not rule out going fans-free if conditions dictate and advised alumni, students and fans, “Be prepared for that.”

“We were really looking forward to playing. It really didn’t make sense to go on the road to play for $50,000 in an empty arena, to expose [the players] to travel and the other threats. At the end of the day, it was not worth it.” – Alabama State athletic director Jennifer Lynne Williams

The school developed a system of scanning attendees for symptoms (including temperature) before entering the Dunn-Oliver Acadome for games. Fans are required to wear masks and socially distance themselves.

Players are required to wear masks while in the building except while practicing or playing on the court. And like many athletes and staffers around the country, they wear school-branded masks. Theirs, Williams said, were designed by the strength and conditioning staff specifically for physical activity, helping when they do work out. As with most collegiate programs, masks are required in the weight rooms and locker rooms.

The school also ended its semester early and is not scheduled to resume in the spring until mid-January, so the basketball teams will be in a semibubble on campus.

Keeping the players focused has not been an overwhelming challenge, said men’s head coach Mo Williams (no relation to the athletic director), entering his first season with Alabama State. Their focus on classes has been exemplary, he said, and they’ve had no problem adhering to all the protocols.

“You kind of get used to it after a while,” he said. “It’s like when you’re just walking around – you have your phone, you have your mask.”

The sudden reduction of the season was nothing he or the team couldn’t handle, Williams said: “You have to be able to adjust and pivot. You have a game plan, until you get hit in the mouth.”

The adjustments will likely continue, Lynne Williams said, because right now the virus isn’t going anywhere. “I joke to people that I have a degree in COVID-ology,” she said.

Morgan State

The Bears opened their season the day before Thanksgiving with a men’s-women’s doubleheader at Hill Field House for a specific pandemic-related reason: as a dry run for clearing the building safely, sanitizing it to their standards and putting on another game on the same day. It will also come in handy, reasoned athletic director Edward Scott, when the MEAC tournament is played in March.

“Let’s run a case study on this,” he said of the noon and 3 p.m. starts.

All basketball games this season will be without fans, but the school will stream all games for free on its in-house service. Scott said it was necessary based on guidelines from Maryland and the city of Baltimore, where restrictions have been increased in recent weeks. Morgan State had all-virtual classes this semester with only a few students on campus. Basketball players would not return to campus to live until January, at the earliest.

The same social distancing and sanitation guidelines govern practices as with most programs, on the court, in locker rooms and weight rooms. The players wear masks at all times in the building when not on the court practicing. The coaches, support staff and scorer’s table personnel wear masks at practice and will do so in games. Players and staff are tested three times a week to meet NCAA recommendations.

The MEAC schedule is set up regionally, so the long trips to Florida are not a factor for the schools in Maryland, Delaware, Virginia and Washington. Every conference and nonconference road game is reachable by bus from Baltimore. That originally included the longest trip by either program this season, the women’s game in Cincinnati against Xavier on Nov. 29. That game was canceled after Maryland put stricter travel restrictions in place.

“It’s all contingent,” Scott said of games by both teams. “Everything is still fluid. But the biggest concern is going to a location and having to quarantine for 14 days and having it disrupt our schedule.”

That fluidity was proven again by University of Maryland Eastern Shore’s (UMES) decision to call off sports for the rest of the year. Morgan State’s MEAC opener on Jan. 2 was at UMES. The conference is still reworking the schedule. For now, the Bears open MEAC play a week later.

Across town, MEAC rival Coppin State had an outbreak in the basketball program, causing the postponement of the start of the season for both teams.

It’s just another challenge for a conference and member schools that have been working to stay a step ahead of the pandemic since last spring, when their postseason basketball tournament was the last to be called off. The 2021 edition, scheduled for Norfolk, Virginia, is still on.

Dillard

The 1,200-enrollment private Dillard in New Orleans was to begin its men’s and women’s basketball seasons in early November, and the women have played three games. The men, however, went into quarantine on Nov. 3 and only came out of it the week of Thanksgiving to return to practice. Their intervening games were postponed, and between that and cancellations by their opponents, the Bleu Devils won’t resume their season until Jan. 7.

Other winter sports at the school have been able to patch together a schedule, said athletic director Kiki Baker Barnes, “but basketball is something else. With basketball, there’s no flexibility. And [in the sport], it’s very hard to say that if one person has [the virus], then maybe nobody else has it.”

NAIA guidelines leave many protocols up to the schools, including testing, knowing the financial disparities among the schools. The GCAC, the seven-member conference of HBCUs spanning five states, shied away from testing rules as well, largely for the same reasons, but the conference is discussing instituting protocols by the time conference play begins in January.

Screening is strongly emphasized by the NAIA, but, Barnes said, “we’re testing because we need to test.” Dillard tests students regularly, and when they return to competition, the basketball players on both teams will be tested before every game.

Barnes said social distancing, mask and sanitizing policies are largely irrelevant because they decided the locker rooms at their facility, Dent Hall, were too small to safely social distance. But the practice gym is sanitized thoroughly between sessions, masks are required for everybody, including players when they’re not practicing, and they get assigned seats they are responsible for sanitizing after use.

Attendance was not allowed for the handful of home games played before the break, and space around the court was kept clear. Visiting team training staffs have to bring their own equipment to eliminate the risk of sharing anything, from tape to tables.

One cost-saving move Dillard and schools like it aren’t able to employ is having the men’s and women’s teams traveling on the same bus to sites. Now, Barnes said, even with the schedule set up to minimize travel and long stays, two buses are required to maintain distancing for the passengers.

“That added expense is giving us pause,” Barnes said. “It saves a lot of money using one bus.”

Their longest trip is to Jacksonville, Florida, some nine hours away, to play Edward Waters. It is the only overnight stay … and that will require tight controls, on-room assignments, meetings and meals.

Athletes at schools of Dillard’s size know the circumstances they’re in, as do the officials, but the thought of shutting sports down individually or collectively for financial reasons – rather than for health and safety – haven’t been considered.

“I think that at the end of the day, you’ve got to try,” Barnes said, noting that athletes have not chosen to opt out and that attendance on campus overall has not suffered a sharp drop. “You don’t want your student-athletes to say, ‘I’ve got to transfer to another school that’s playing.’ They do come here for so much of the other benefits of being here, at an HBCU, their academic pursuits, but we want to keep on providing the experience they came here for as athletes.”

In return, the athletes just have to honor the mask mandates and mini-bubble rules. Sometimes, she said, “we’ve had to give them very stern words – you won’t have a season if you don’t.”

Texas Southern

The Tigers, the preseason pick to win the SWAC men’s title, took on an ambitious nonconference schedule that started with a trip to Washington State for a Nov. 25 game. The team left the night before – which is, in fact, normal procedure.

But facing a team whose head coach, Kyle Smith, was isolating after testing positive for the coronavirus was decidedly not.

Head coach Johnny Jones, heading to a nonconference payday game where there might not even be fans, didn’t know what to expect. He had to keep his team safe on the 4,200-plus-mile round trip to the Pacific Northwest, making sure they were socially distanced enough in airports, on flights, in hotels and arenas while minimizing their exposure and remaining tight and accountable in their group.

Texas Southern head coach Johnny Jones reacts after a team foul during the first half against Washington State at Friel Court at Beasley Coliseum.

James Snook\USA TODAY Sports

“We’ve constantly been comfortable in being uncomfortable,” Jones said.

As it turned out, fans were barred from attending, with cardboard cutouts in their place, but Smith was cleared to coach Washington State in person hours before tipoff. Texas Southern was tied with a minute left before falling 56-52.

By the coach’s estimation, the Texas Southern players have become comfortable in adhering to all the familiar protocols. They have tested three times a week according to NCAA recommendations. Between keeping masks on when necessary – but not during practices – and initially practicing this fall in “pods” with their own positions to reduce potential exposure to maintaining the semibubble and limiting outside contact, the players have not had any positive tests that have disrupted their preseason.

“They haven’t had to shut down,” Jones said. “They’ve put themselves into position to play.”

That got them to Pullman, Washington, then directly to Stillwater, Oklahoma, for a Saturday game at Oklahoma State, without going home in between. They returned home, then went to Wyoming (and won 76-74) and traveled from there to Northern California to face Saint Mary’s on Dec. 3.

The Tigers men’s first game on campus is in January, their SWAC opener. For now, fans are expected to be allowed into the Health & Physical Education Arena.

Houston, and the state of Texas, has been a particularly dangerous COVID-19 hot spot, yet, as Jones pointed out, his team has made it through without a positive test so far, and the campus has come through relatively unscathed. Jones credits the school administration and the SWAC leadership, including commissioner Charles McClelland, for making sure the members are always on the same page as the rest of the NCAA’s marquee programs.

“I’ll tell you, we’ve got as much info as any Power 5 school out there. Our administration is hellbent on it,” Jones said. “Here’s an example: I am the head coach, my son [John, a senior] plays on the team, and there are times that they didn’t want the two of us in the gym at the same time.”

It’s a good sign for Texas Southern and the rest of the conference, even with one program, Alabama State, opting out of nonconference games. Everyone feels well-protected and well-informed, he said.

“A lot of places that got a whole lot of money have gotten shut down,” Jones said. “Our guys have done it the right way.”

David Steele has written about sports for more than 30 years, for outlets including the Sporting News, Baltimore Sun, San Francisco Chronicle and Newsday. He co-authored Olympic gold medalist and human rights activist Tommie Smith's 2007 autobiography, Silent Gesture.