UNC players’ postgame maskless party let two teams down

The celebration after Tar Heels' win over Duke led to the Miami game being postponed

Tar Heels forward Garrison Brooks, during a Zoom press conference with the media following UNC's win over rival Duke, reacts to news that fans were celebrating on Franklin Street following the game.

UNC’s win over Duke came in front of a nearly empty Cameron Indoor Stadium. Aside from game operations personnel, some ESPN broadcast crew members and arena security guards, no one attended the latest matchup in sports’ best rivalry. This for a game that’s been attended by President Obama, Spike Lee and others with the name and power to pull the strings needed to get a ticket.

It didn’t matter how much you’d donated to the program. You were on the outside.

It also didn’t matter whose parent you were. While many schools allow family members in for games, Duke takes a hard line with its COVID protocols. Mom and Dad can stay home.

After the game, Garrison Brooks met with the media — who also were left outside for the game — and was told by a reporter that, back in Chapel Hill, students were rushing Franklin Street in the traditional celebration following a Duke win.

Brooks, normally level-headed and calm during his press conferences, jerked his head back in shock, showing a look of comical surprise on his face at the news. The celebration later earned a harsh rebuke from UNC’s chancellor, who warned, “COVID doesn’t take a break for the Duke game,” and promised to “pursue consequences” against anyone violating protocol.

All of which leads us to the video. On Sunday, Miami was preparing to leave for Chapel Hill, a process that has become challenging this year due to the pandemic.

“Do you know how much time we spend on seating arrangements for the bus and the plane, just for contact tracing?” Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner said on a call earlier this season. 

“Travel, right now, is a challenge,” NC State coach Kevin Keatts agreed.

Changes to this year’s travel process for Miami include charter flights, an added expense at a time when the athletic department and school have seen revenue plunge. A strict seating chart on buses and planes requires roommates to sit together, so no additional contacts — and potential infections — are made on the trip. The players aren’t fed on the two-hour flight or allowed to remove their masks.

There are no pregame meals or meetings in hotel conference or banquet rooms. Instead, players eat boxed meals in their rooms.

A small number of family members would have been able to watch the game in the Smith Center, but they weren’t allowed to hug their players. All contact between family and player must be done at a safe distance in the hotel lobby.

Miami isn’t the only team taking these precautions. Some teams didn’t allow players to go home for the holidays, and some haven’t seen their families since they arrived on campus in August. With off-campus housing and online classes, many players haven’t had contact with any students outside of their teammates this school year.

Wake Forest coach Steve Forbes discussed the lack of social life for his team on a recent radio appearance, saying that the players finish practice, pick up their boxed dinners and go back to their rooms, alone, for the night.

In other words, basketball players aren’t living like regular college students. As fitful as the season has been, with postponements and rapid reschedulings, it’s only been possible to limp along because teams and players are sticking to these strict rules.

That’s the problem with what a few UNC players did following the Duke win.

In the grand scheme of things, is celebrating a big win the end of the world? Certainly not, and no one is calling for Armando Bacot and Day’Ron Sharpe — who were caught on video, maskless, with at least seven other people at a postgame party — to lose their scholarships or eligibility. They don’t need to be booed or attacked on social media, but they made a mistake — a silly, youthful mistake they probably already regret.

Still, as the Cameron Crazies would have said at some point on Saturday night, if they’d been allowed in, “You let the whole … team … down. You let the whole … team … down.”

Two teams, actually, because, after making the trip from South Florida, Miami had to turn around and head home. This is the same team that has been ravaged by injuries since mid-December. The Hurricanes had six healthy players available for their conference opener and have regularly been down to seven or eight available bodies for games over the last two months. 

The Hurricanes could have gone ahead and played the game. If UNC allowed Bacot and Sharpe to suit up, they may have risked exposure. Even if those two Carolina players sat out, it’s possible other players on the team had contact with them post-party. And if any team can’t afford to lose a guy or two to contact tracing, it’s Miami.

“Our guys have done a fantastic job,” head coach Jim Larranaga told the Miami Herald. “We have not had a single guy test positive, and they were all unanimous that this isn’t right. We have been quarantining, hibernating, whatever you want to call it, and we don’t want to get ourselves in a position to get the virus.”

Larranaga and the Miami higher-ups would have been fully justified to demand some type of payback for this unnecessary trip to nowhere, but they shouldn’t have had to ask.

In the final season of “The West Wing, “President Bartlet meets with one of his longtime advisers, Toby, who has just leaked classified information to the media. Toby offers his letter of resignation, and the president responds grimly,

“I can’t accept your resignation, Toby. I have to fire you.”

When Larranaga met with UNC officials to determine how to handle Monday’s game, the UNC response should have been, “We can’t postpone this game, Jim. We have to forfeit.” They should have then handed Larranaga a check to cover the cost of the charter flights, hotels, buses and any other expenses that came up in the quick there-and-back to Chapel Hill.

While a forfeited game’s outcome likely wouldn’t make much of a difference in NCAA hopes of either team, it would send a message: It was a silly mistake, but mistakes have consequences. This disease has spread, primarily, because of silly mistakes.

It would have been the right thing to do, and that’s the only way to get to March Madness — by doing the right thing.