My Two Cents: Only Fitting that COVID Strikes One Last Time

The 2020-21 school year just might be the craziest ever since it was played in the lengthy shadows of a COVID-19 pandemic. The virus' last gut punch knocked N.C. State out of the College World Series.

We want it to be over, all of it. We don't want to talk about COVID-19 anymore, don't want it messing with our lives, don't want it interrupting our schedules or our routines.

And we definitely don't want it messing with our games. Not anymore.

For 16 months now, as sports people, we have been keeping score, and COVID-19 has been kicking everyone's butt. In the U.S. alone, more than 600,000 people have died, and that truly is the only number that really matters. Games lost or postponed pale in comparison.

We have argued endlessly about its impact on everyday lives. And for four months now, as millions gets vaccinated and normalcy is returning, we're still occasionally slapped in the face by the power of this virus.

And we have to learn, the hard way, that it's still here.

What played out this weekend at the College World Series is terrible. N.C. State has been the best feel-good story of this NCAA baseball tournament, but just three wins away from winning their first-ever national baseball title, they were sent home because of a massive COVID outbreak inside their program.

Everyone wants to blame the NCAA for this, of course, because they are always the easiest target. And there are plenty of things to rip them over, most notably making the decision to send the Wolfpack home in the middle of the night and then NEVER facing the music over the decision.

But they aren't the only ones to blame. Not even close. There's plenty of blame to go around, and that includes the N.C. State program.

Yep, I said it.

To vaccinate, or not vaccinate

The easiest way to summarize this mess would also be to say that no one is to blame, that COVID wins again, must like it did during football season, and basketball season and even some parts of this baseball season.

COVID deaths have dropped dramatically since March when vaccinations start rolling out by the thousands every day. We are all safer now, but the truth is that COVID is still an issue. 

The NCAA, for all that they do wrong, has dealt with this pandemic proactively. They chose to play the NCAA basketball tournaments – men and women both – in very strict bubbles to keep everyone safe, and it worked. Their signature events were played, and they came off flawlessly. There was a football season, as condensed as it was. They've crowned champions in dozens of other sports, too.

The NCAA has dealt with the pandemic by putting in extremely strict protocols. The major conferences have done the same. There was ONE and only ONE reason why they were so strict – because they didn't want players and/or coaches dying on their watch. They didn't want fans dying on their watch either, which is why we went a full year practically without fans crammed into stadiums. 

All baseball teams knew the rules

That gets me back to this weekend. And it's important to remember that every baseball team in this tournament knew what the protocols were going to be every day in Omaha. Did the NCAA screw up in how they communicated things at the end? Of course they did, but they've always been horrible about that.

But the protocols were very simple. There's an NCAA phrase called Tier 1 personnel, which means all players, coaches and staff members who need to interact daily with the team. That's the Tier 1 group, and people in that group who are fully vaccinated were no longer subject to testing. But the protocols were very clear. Players and coaches who chose not to get vaccinated were still subject to testing, for all the same reasons why the protocols have been in place all year.

They didn't want an outbreak.

But inside the N.C. State program, they got that outbreak, first with one positive test, then two, then four, and then eight. The NCAA simply followed all of their protocols and said, along with contact tracing, that there was no way the Wolfpack could field a team.

They called Saturday's winner-take-all game with Vanderbilt, the defending national champion, a no contest and pushed the Commodores forward into the CWS finals, which start Monday night against Mississippi State. 

And they sent N.C. State home. 

Let me be clear about one thing: I do think the NCAA was right with its final determination, but they were very wrong with how they executed it. 

They knew late on Friday night that four N.C. State players who hadn't been vaccinated had tested positive and were put into quarantine away from their teammates. They found out, too, that four players who had been vaccinated also tested positive. 

That was weird, and that's where they started to handle things wrong. The CDC has been clear that it's still possible to get COVID after being vaccinated, but it's also been clear from the CDC that the effects are dramatically less. Those four really weren't at any health risk.

The NCAA should have slept on it and caught their breaths. They should have done another full round of testing again on Saturday morning with PCR tests, the most specific test, and see where the entire N.C. State roster stood. They was no need to cancel their tournament at 2 a.m. ET like they did.

N.C. State and Vanderbilt were supposed to play at 2 p.m. ET on Saturday, but they could have waited to know more. They could have moved the game to Sunday and still kept the Monday-through-Wednesday final intact. They should have at least given N.C. State the chance to field a team of healthy players who all tested negative one last time.

They never gave them the chance.

But know this — N.C. State didn't give themselves a chance either.

There have been reports out there that a few teams decided to have ALL players and coaches get vaccinated so they wouldn't be subject to testing in Omaha. We don't know that it's true, because the NCAA does not release results of who has been vaccinated, who gets tested, and who tests positive.

N.C. State — which won a regional as a No. 3 seed and then upset No. 1-ranked Arkansas in the Super Regional after losing the opener 21-2 — played on Friday with the 13 players who had been vaccinated. Everyone else was held out. Nearly two dozen others HAD NOT been vaccinated and were subject to testing. 

The argument about whether to vaccinate or not still rages on in our country. There are many who say "my body, my choice'' when choosing not to get vaccinated, and that is an individual right. 

It's also a choice to GET the vaccine and eliminate the risk. (Full disclosure, I got vaccinated as quickly as I could in March and early April.) And when you're playing a team game, don't you have to think about all of your teammates too when you're making that ''my body, my choice'' decision?

N.C. State coach Elliott Avent didn't even want to talk about the medical decisions involved. He's been coaching at N.C. State for 25 years, and this was his first real chance at winning an NCAA title. 

"I've been coaching for a long time," Avent said. "And I think I'm the caretaker, the babysitter or the guy that the parents drop their young men off and leave them in my care. And they've raised them to be the quality people that we recruit. And my job is to teach them baseball, make sure they get an education and keep them on the right track forward.

"But I don't try to indoctrinate my kids with my values or my opinions. Obviously we talk about a lot of things. But these are young men that can make their own decisions, and that's what they did."

Quite simply, a fully vaccinated N.C. State team would probably still be playing baseball right now. That was their decision to make, one player and coach at a time, and they made it.

And now they have to live with it.

COVID issues controlled season

This is been an issue all season, of course. For instance, the Indiana baseball team that I cover had COVID blow through its program during the offseason and knocked out a couple dozen players at one time. There was talk for a while of shutting down the program completely for a few weeks, it was that bad.

And even during the season, Indiana coach Jeff Mercer got COVID and missed two weeks of games. So did several of his coaches. It happens, and it's happened at a lot of places, too.

College baseball coaches found themselves in a tough spot all spring once vaccinations became available. Do they push kids to get the shot? Do they even feel that it's their place to say anything? It's a tough call, especially from a moral and ethical spot.

N.C. State's Avent basically said the same thing, that it wasn't his place to tell his kids what to do, so he didn't. The N.C. State players all made individual choices.

And the result? A COVID outbreak. On his own team. At the worst time. And it led directly to their biggest dreams – the dream of winning a national championship — being ripped from their hands.

The oddity to it all is that all these games have been played at Omaha in front of a stadium full of fans, some vaccinated, some not. More than 20,000 fans a night. And, it's important to note, the seven other teams had ZERO positive tests. 

And that makes it hard.

But for all of its flaws — and the NCAA has many — to follow their own protocols to the end is not necessarily a bad thing. Sure, the players who tested positive will more than likely feel fine in a few days. But what if, say, an older coach got sick in Omaha and was hospitalized or — dare we say — died? That's what the NCAA has tried to avoid for a year now.

People are still dying from COVID here in the middle of the summer, and we're still seeing that every day. The NCAA simply followed its own rules. They executed them poorly, but that's what they do, too. 

Do I feel terrible for the N.C. State players? Of course. It's a terrible way for the season to end. But, and I have to say this, it was possible for them to avoid this happening, and they chose not to do it. That is their right – and please hear me saying that – but there are also ramifications to their decisions.

That's hard, from every angle of this argument. 

I've been doing this a long time, and for me, it's ALWAYS about the players. N.C. State got robbed and I would have loved to have seen them at least compete on the field. 

But in the end, they did get beat — by COVID. And that stinks, in a very big way. It's stinks that COVID has won again, one last time.

Or is it the last time?