Duke's absence from the NCAA men's basketball tournament is glaring.
Duke's women have been gone from the picture for months. The Blue Devils dropped to 3-1 with a loss to Louisville on Dec. 9. And that was it.
The program hit pause on Dec. 16 after two positive COVID-19 tests. On Christmas, it called it a wrap. Duke became the first Power Five basketball program on the men's or women's side to outright cancel its season because of the pandemic.
Duke the exception
In a season when sports leagues and teams largely opted into the risks associated with playing during the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the nation's most prominent programs marked a notable exception. The Ivy League canceled all winter sports as the threat of a seasonal spike in COVID-19 cases became apparent. But the Ivy League has been on the front end of pandemic planning from the outset.
It controversially canceled its 2020 basketball tournaments on March 10. Neither the NCAA nor a CDC under the influence of President Donald Trump advised at that time to do so. Players protested, with some filing a petition calling out the "hypocrisy of our Ivy League presidents" in making the decision.
Who made the decision to end Duke's season?
As a nation adapted to the risks of the pandemic, sports resumed. They weren't the same. But there were games. Basketball returned in the NBA and WNBA bubbles and then arenas and eventually on college campuses — outside of the Ivy League, of course.
Which is what makes Duke's decision so notable. Virginia's women followed Duke in canceling their season in January. But no other program of this prominence before or since has opted out, even as a peaking pandemic this winter suggested that it might have been the prudent decision.
Duke announced the decision with a simple statement from spokesman Michael Schoenfeld on Dec. 25.
"The student-athletes on the Duke women's basketball team have made the difficult decision to conclude their current season due to safety concerns,"the statement read. "We support their decision, as we have supported the choices made by all student-athletes at Duke during this unprecedented time."
That was the first and last official statement from the program, which declined to grant interview requests of players in its aftermath.
The statement acknowledged that the decision was made by the student-athletes, a collective display of player empowerment in a system where the power lies almost strictly with coaches, programs, conferences and the NCAA. But Duke's women leveraged the only real power they have in this dynamic — whether to play or not to play. And they did so with support of their 39-year-old rookie coach.
Risk for a rookie head coach
Kara Lawson joined her players in making the decision that came with a share of personal risk as the first-year head coach of a major ACC program. She did so not far removed from the perspective of her players.
Lawson starred for four seasons at the University of Tennessee from 1999-2003 before embarking on a 13-season WNBA career that concluded in 2015. She briefly worked as a broadcast analyst before joining the coaching ranks as an assistant with the Boston Celtics in 2019.
A year later, she was the head coach at Duke, a job she accepted from the NBA bubble. Four games into her career, she joined the call to cancel the season. Lawson hasn't publicly addressed the decision since it was announced. But she made her stance clear on Dec. 9 as questions swirled about the wisdom of carrying on with the college basketball season.
"I don't think we should be playing right now," Lawson said after the Louisville game. "That's my opinion on it."
Two weeks later, Duke's season was over.
Was insufficient testing the final straw?
Duke never publicly addressed why it canceled the season beyond noting that the decision belonged to the players. A day after Duke's announcement, senior forward Jade Williams shed some light on Twitter, implying that the decision was tied to insufficient COVID-19 testing.
She also addressed the patently obvious reason why student-athletes in December 2020 might not want to play basketball — because of an ongoing pandemic.
Two days later, the Raleigh News & Observer reported that players ultimately decided to opt out after the ACC denied their request to have opponents tested daily for COVID-19. The ACC responded to Duke's decision with a statement provided to ESPN:
"The conference respects Duke women's basketball's decision, just as we have in other sports."
Did Duke make the right decision?
College basketball resumed during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. A U.S. death toll that stood at 250,000 in mid-November has more than doubled to 530,000 and counting in mid-March.. At the same time, U.S. attitudes toward the virus became increasingly casual as fatigue set in and holidays loomed.
Duke took a stand when it wasn't satisfied with the conditions in gyms and arenas. Meanwhile, college basketball carried on, with a positive case among the Duke men at the ACC tournament men a reminder of the ongoing risks.
Now college basketball is celebrating the return of the NCAA tournament, a spring ritual and an integral slice of American culture — a welcome reprieve as hope surges that the end of the pandemic is in sight.
It will go on without Duke in either bracket.
Duke's women's team doesn't carry the same pedigree as its men's counterpart. But the Blue Devils made 23 out of the last 25 NCAA tournaments. Its absence from the basketball landscape was stark in December. It's stark again in March.
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