THE CHEAP SEATS with STEVE CAMERON: Roth, Zags planning — and adjusting — for a season of uncertainty
“A number of American colleges and universities have decided to bring students back to campus this fall, believing they can diminish the risk of coronavirus transmission if everyone wears masks, uses hand sanitizer and social distances.
“These plans are so unrealistically optimistic that they border on delusional.”
Dr. Laurence Steinberg
Professor of Psychology
New York Times Op-Ed
SPOKANE — Mike Roth is certainly not delusional.
Bank on that.
In fact, the Gonzaga athletic director has become a cool-headed realist when looking at the immediate future of his university’s athletic programs.
“As we try to plan for resuming sports on campus, and address issues like traveling to play in various places,” Roth said, “the only thing certain is change.
“Whatever we’re looking at today can be turned upside down by tomorrow — and that change could turn in so many directions, it feels like we have to plan for almost anything.
“Then another day later, it’s a new set of plans.”
No disrespect to the school’s other programs, but at Gonzaga, men’s basketball pays the bills — and there’s plenty of anticipation when it’s assumed you’ll head into a season ranked No. 1 in the nation.
“A positive thing going for the idea of having a basketball season, whether it’s normal or not, would be the fact that we wouldn’t have to make absolute decisions about games until November,” Roth said.
“The way things have gone so far, a million more changes could be coming between now and then.”
ONE OF those items, the first and most critical on the checklist, must be reopening Gonzaga University itself.
The school is currently closed, like a bank at midnight.
In a non-pandemic year, the campus would be buzzing with students taking summer classes — and athletes working out.
Dr. Steinberg, the gentleman quoted at the start of today’s discussion, is an expert on adolescence and has written several books on the subject.
He states flatly that young people of college age, no matter the motivation, just aren’t cut out to follow the strict sets of rules that might be necessary to keep a university open and safe.
Athletes are a small subset of the student population at any school, and are likely better equipped to handle necessary protocols regarding the coronavirus.
These kids understand rules better than average undergrads.
You’d hope so, anyway.
AND YET, even as administrators make claims about barging ahead with football seasons in many parts of the country where the money involved is mind-boggling, plenty of players already are testing positive for the virus.
It’s happened at places like Clemson, Texas, Alabama, Kansas State and various other schools.
“We can’t go forward thinking about sports schedules — whether it’s basketball or anything else — unless students are safely on campus in something at least close to traditional numbers,” Roth said.
“It’s also worth considering that besides our own institutional guidelines, we also have to stay in line with any restrictions from the state, from the city, from the county.
“One of the reasons this thing is changing so much is that everything is very dependent on so many outside factors, things we can’t control.
“We meet constantly online with our own administration, with people from around the WCC (all 10 schools currently plan to open with students on campus in the fall, with only BYU playing football), and with the various health experts.
“Everyone is processing new information almost daily.”
SO, WHAT would be worse for Gonzaga’s revenue-rich hoops program?
Starting a skeleton season, assuming you’d have to change some scheduled games on the fly?
Or canceling the 2020-21 season entirely, then hoping for a vaccine or some other remedy that returns life to normal in a year or so?
“Athletes will always want to play,” Roth said, “even in an empty building.”
But Roth included a reminder that any men’s basketball season might have to be planned and played on a week-to-week basis.
For example, the Zags have a couple of marquee neutral-site games on the schedule — against Tennessee at Madison Square Garden in New York City, plus a rematch with Texas Tech — that 2019 Elite Eight foe — at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix.
Without paying fans, those host sites have no reason to go ahead.
“There are some major programs, even in places like the Big Ten, where decisions already have been made to eliminate some of the usual travel,” Roth said.
“Part of it is financial, but it’s also about avoiding unnecessary exposure to the virus.
“The safety of student-athletes has to be No. 1.”
FOR AN athletic director at any school enjoying huge success and a routinely sold-out arena, there is even a nightmare scenario that could accompany a full or partial basketball season.
“Let’s say we’re in a position to play, and we can even safely allow some people to attend home games — but it has to be a limited number for safety reason,” Roth said.
“How do you decide who gets in?
“I wouldn’t be very popular with anyone who has tickets but couldn’t use them.”
That situation would mean an awful lot of hurdles already had been cleared.
You have to believe Roth would be willing to wear a disguise around downtown if it meant the university and its athletic programs were both up and running.
Right this minute, neither of those things looks like a cinch.
Or anything close.
Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.
Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball, once per month during the offseason.