SAN ANTONIO — Someone needs to remind Baylor coach Kim Mulkey that the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over.
Mulkey said Monday night that the NCAA should stop COVID testing at both the men’s and women’s tournaments ahead of the Final Four so no player runs the risk of testing positive and being ruled out.
“I don’t think my words will matter,” Mulkey said after Baylor lost to UConn 69-67 in the Elite Eight. “But … they need to dump the COVID testing. Wouldn’t it be a shame to keep COVID testing and you’ve got kids that end up test positive or something and they don’t get to play in a Final Four?
“So you need to just forget the COVID test and let the four teams that are playing in each Final Four go battle it out.”
To suggest that a basketball game, even one in the Final Four or for the national title, is more important than a player or coach’s health is as troubling as it is ignorant. Mulkey, of all people, should know better, having had COVID herself in January.
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COVID has already killed more than 550,000 in the United States alone over the last year and cases, after plateauing for several weeks, are rising again. Medical experts, of which Mulkey is not one, are warning of the dangers of new, more contagious variants, urging people to remain vigilant about wearing masks, socially distancing and, yes, testing, until more of the country can be vaccinated.
That the men’s and women’s tournaments are being played in states that have loosened restrictions only heightens the risks. Texas has lifted its mask mandate, and while individual businesses in San Antonio can still require them, many do not.
The Rivercenter mall, attached to the hotel where NCAA Tournament teams are staying, has no signs requiring or even recommending that visitors wear mask, and few people do. Ditto for the Tower of Americas, a tourist attraction down the street from the Alamodome.
The River Walk is packed with tourists, and social distancing is non-existent. Many hotels are still requiring masks to be worn indoors, but that is trusting guests to comply, and anecdotal evidence shows that is hit or miss.
We’re all tired of COVID and the restrictions necessary to prevent its spread, and it’s getting harder and harder to be vigilant as vaccinations become more common and a return to normal is in sight. But for Mulkey to suggest that it should no longer be taken seriously is mind-boggling.
It’s true that young people are at lower risk for severe cases of the disease, to say they will be fine! just fine! is irresponsible. Or perhaps Mulkey has forgotten about Vanderbilt guard Demi Washington, who was forced to sit out this season after developing myocarditis following a bout with COVID.
And it’s not only the players who Mulkey is willing to put at risk for the sake of a game. Roger Ayers, the referee who was sent home from the NCAA men’s tournament after testing positive for COVID, finally felt well enough Monday to take a walk outside, two weeks after getting sick.
The NCAA has asked a lot of players and coaches in order to pull off this season, let alone the men’s and women’s tournaments. The restrictions have been onerous and the testing is inconvenient. But to suggest throwing it all away now, less than a week before the men’s and women’s title games, is the height of irresponsibility.
Mulkey should know better. It’s appalling that she doesn’t.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.