‘Voluntary’ workouts are normal for college athletes

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Last week, the NCAA announced that basketball and football players would be able to return to campus on June 1st, pending conference and state approval, to participate in voluntary offseason workouts with teammates.

It’s spawned a conversation about the return to normalcy and how college sports can make their COVID comeback. Our Corey Robinson made the point on All Things on Friday that the voluntary workouts that he participated in while a member of the Notre Dame football team were “mandatory optional,” meaning that they were voluntary in name only. The players were expected to be there and participate, even if it cut into their summer vacation.

How this plays out in the coronavirus era is an entirely different conversation, one with too many caveats to for people that are suffering from quarantine brain. For example, while the NCAA is pulling back on their restrictions, the schools and their athletes are still subject to conference rules — the SEC will be opening things up on June 1st, while the Pac-12 is waiting until June 15th — and state laws. Ohio has re-opened, while New Jersey is still very much limiting what can and cannot open. A return will be different for Ohio State and Rutgers, who are both part of the Big Ten.

And that’s only part of the complications involved.

New York City is the epicenter of the outbreak in a country that has been hit the hardest by this virus. Will coaches want to bring players that live in the city during the offseason back onto campus and risk infection? Will players that live with at-risk relatives be forced to return home?

The other side of it, however, is that as states open up, as local gyms open up, these athletes are going to want to get back to their routine. They are going to want to get back into shape. If you think that you have taken lockdown hard, imagine being a finely-tuned athlete that is told to stay out of the gym and off the basketball courts for two months. Those guys are going to jump at the chance to start playing again, and if the option is to workout at the local Lifetime Fitness or have them back onto campus, where access to weight rooms is monitored and sanitizing can be done more often, the answer is clear.

Allowing athletes to workout on campus during the summer may actually be the safer option.

Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: Moving towards a return to sports is a good thing for our country. We need signs that we can get back to a regular life at some point. We need hope. We need something to look forward to, and for many, that is watching — or playing — college athletics. There are so many unknowns that a slow, cautious return might be what works.

That said, the number of questions that are still left unanswered is mystifying.

For starters, who is going to play to test all of these college football and college basketball players? Who is going to pay to test all the people they come into contact with on a daily basis? All the professional sports teams that have returned or are preparing to return have rigorous testing procedures in place. College sports doesn’t. Those pro athletes will be kept in a bubble. They are going to be quarantined. College athletes will be on campus. All it takes is for one member of a football or basketball team to decide that it’s OK to hit a party where someone is asymptomatic to mess everything up.

And what happens when they do? Will that player go into quarantine? Will everyone that he or she has been practicing against go into quarantine? Will the teams they played in recent days go into quarantine? Will they be allowed to play road games if someone in the program tests positive? Will other campuses want to risk an outbreak just so they can get the ticket revenue from a 1/3-full stadium?

What about the coaches that are 70-plus years old?

Hell, what about all of the college basketball players from overseas? Are we ever going to see them in a college hoops uniform again?

Here’s the biggest question, however: College campuses have started to announce their new schedules for classes, and many of them are starting early and ending early, right around Thanksgiving, due to concerns about a second wave coming this winter. November is when college basketball season is supposed to start. Are we going to play a full season in the throes of a second wave?

The question of whether or not these workouts are actually voluntary is hardly the question I would be asking if I’m a college sports fan right now.

Kentucky moves scrimmage to Eastern Kentucky for flood relief

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky will play its annual Blue-White men’s basketball scrimmage in Eastern Kentucky to benefit victims of the devastating summer floods.

The school announced that the Oct. 22 event at Appalachian Wireless Arena in Pikeville will feature a pregame Fan Fest. Ticket proceeds will go through Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief.

Wildcat players will also participate in a community service activity with local organizations in the relief effort.

Kentucky coach John Calipari said the team was excited to play for Eastern Kentucky fans and added, “We hope we can provide a temporary escape with basketball and community engagement.”

The scrimmage traditionally is held at Rupp Arena. It will occur eight days after its Big Blue Madness public workout at Rupp.

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.