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MEAC calls off fall sports, and N.C. A&T adjusts to life without football

GREENSBORO — The decision is logical. It makes perfect sense.

But that doesn’t mean the fallout is easy. Logic doesn’t assuage the ache of loss.

N.C. A&T’s promising football season is over before it began. With COVID-19 cases continuing to trend upward, the MEAC decided Thursday to suspend all fall sports for the coming 2020-21 school year.

“Everyone understands. Everybody gets it,” N.C. A&T athletics director Earl Hilton said on a Zoom conference call. “The data is pretty clear, so it’s not a difficult thing to explain. But understanding it doesn’t make it less devastating. It doesn’t make it less gut-wrenching, less heart-breaking. …”

Hilton’s voice trailed off. Choked with emotion, the Aggies’ AD broke down. No more words would come for 18 seconds while he composed himself.

“These are not opportunities that will come again for many of these student-athletes,” he said at last. “I’ll be there and you’ll be there next football season. But my seniors might not be. These (college careers) are time-limited. They expire. And so it’s not something we can say, ‘Let’s do it again next year; come back and it’ll be OK.’

“I clearly haven’t recovered from canceling basketball in March or indoor-outdoor track yet. But when these student-athletes lose a year of competition, especially my upperclassmen, it’s gone. It’s over. And they’ve been working, preparing for these experiences, for these opportunities. Some of them have aspirations beyond college. Some of them have talent beyond college. And to take away the opportunity to showcase that talent, to put themselves in position to be hired to play professionally, well, (the word) ‘devastating’ doesn’t seem strong enough. I cannot imagine the pain they feel.”

The decision

The MEAC and its Council of Presidents and Chancellors announced at noon it would suspend sports because of the continuing coronavirus pandemic, but the league left open the possibility of fall sports schedules being moved to the 2021 spring semester.

It’s an option Hilton said is unlikely.

The league’s fall sports are football, cross country and women’s volleyball. Baseball and golf typically play exhibitions in the fall as well.

“Much will be determined by what the NCAA does,” Hilton said. “If the NCAA continues to move forward and has championship seasons for cross country and volleyball and football in the fall, as they are scheduled, then playing a spring schedule would be of little interest to us. I would not want to burn a year of eligibility for a young person for what amounts to an exhibition season.”

The MEAC’s winter sports — men’s and women’s basketball, indoor track and women’s bowling — have not been affected. Yet. That could change if “health and medical professionals advise otherwise,” MEAC commissioner Dennis Thomas said.

Winter sports teams typically start practice in October. Most schools have already adjusted their calendars to be done with on-campus classes by Thanksgiving.

“It’s too early to make a decision on the winter sports,” Thomas said during a video conference. “… We have to be cognizant of what the predictive infectious disease experts have indicated. The flu season and the pandemic at the same time could have a devastating impact.”

The virus

The coronavirus has spread rapidly in the last few weeks, with several hot spots on the East Coast. As of Thursday morning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 3.48 million confirmed cases in the United States with 136,938 deaths from COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

Data suggests African-Americans and other minority communities are disproportionately affected.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes continue to be our No. 1 priority,” said Dr. Wayne Frederick of Howard, chairman of the MEAC Council of Presidents and Chancellors.

The challenge of college sports, Frederick said, is that MEAC athletes are students first. And students must go to classes and interact with other students, making the “bubble” concept used by the NBA, NHL and MLB to isolate their athletes unworkable.

“If you look at what’s happening in pro sports, starting with the English Premier League and soccer leagues, there is lots of infrastructure and testing,” Frederick said. “... In all of those circumstances, that bubble excludes everybody else including fans. In a university setting, that’s hard to replicate.”

That’s especially true in the MEAC, where universities have differing levels of resources committed to athletics, and some schools have struggled mightily with financial issues in recent years.

Thomas, the league commissioner, said he believes all schools will be facing decisions by the end of July. Will they play in the fall? Will they play conference-only schedules to reduce travel? Will they pull the plug?

“Most conferences are in a wait-and-see attitude in reference to this pandemic,” Thomas said. “… Some, if not all, Power Five institutions have brought athletes back. I don’t know if there’s one that’s had no positives (coronavirus tests) since they came back. In most objective people’s minds, they understand there will be positive tests.”

The seniors

The loss of football particularly hurts for the Aggies.

A&T has consistently been ranked in the FCS Top 25 polls. The Aggies have won four of the five Celebration Bowls, and they are once again loaded with veteran talent.

In all, 18 seniors — 15 of them redshirt or fifth-year players — are on A&T’s football roster, with 11 of those projected as starters.

That includes two past All-America picks, running back Jah-Maine Martin and cornerback Mac McCain. It includes All-MEAC offensive linemen Dontae Keyes and De’Jour Simpson; starting wide receivers Zach Leslie, Korey Banks and Ron Hunt; and 2018 Celebration Bowl defensive MVP Richie Kittles.

“We were jacked. We were loaded,” Hilton said. “It’s difficult for me to put into words because I’m a coaches-and-kids’ AD. I identify heavily with our student-athletes. …

“I’m trying to put it into context, and I keep reminding myself that 130,000-plus Americans have died as a result of this virus. And I’m talking about games and sports? I keep reminding myself, but it is still difficult to tell some of these young people who have worked so hard that their dreams may be gone.”

The future

The loss of football will put a significant dent in A&T’s athletics budget, which totaled nearly $14.7 million for the fiscal year of July 1, 2018 through June 30, 2019, according to the most recent data reported to the U.S. Department of Education.

Football revenue and expenses were slightly more than $5.6 million.

“Football creates revenue. But it does not turn a profit. It’s not like it’s supporting other sports,” Hilton said. “Football makes somewhere between $1.3 (million) to $1.4 million in ticket revenue. It’s not insignificant, but it’s not insurmountable, either. Because there will be savings, as well, with travel costs and things like that.”

Hilton said there are no plans to reduce scholarships, and he hopes there will be no layoffs among full-time staff.

“The truth is,” he said, “it’s way too early to know how this will affect our budgeting.”

In the meantime, athletes who are on campus for voluntary summer workouts will stay put. They’re taking online summer courses, Hilton said, and he wants them to stay in contact with their coaches and keep access to A&T’s academic support network of tutors and counselors.

“I’ve never had a fall without football,” Hilton said. “I don’t know what that world looks like. It’s going to be difficult. But by comparison, my problems are small.”

New Triad group seeks participants for charrette aimed at improving race relations

GREENSBORO — After well over a month of protesting nationwide, plenty of people are asking, “What comes next?”

Freddie Marshall said he asked himself the same question while leading a protest in Greensboro on the last Saturday in May, the first day of major protests in Greensboro after the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died May 25 while in the custody of Minneapolis police when an officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Marshall, 52, said he was inspired by the young people and their motivation that he saw at protests.

“But they’re also carrying a lot of frustration,” he said. “It needs to be guided.”

Marshall said he realized that the current moment, ignited by the death of Floyd and fueled by a seemingly never-ending list of instances of police brutality against Black people, needs to be morphed into a lasting movement. Locally, Greensboro Police Chief Brian James announced in early June several police policy modifications and reviews, but conversations about race relations and law enforcement remain heated.

“That’s where this idea of the Racial Accountability Cohort was born from,” Marshall said.

His recently formed group, which consists of a board of directors, is working toward hosting a charrette — an intense, deadline-driven session of collaborative problem-solving — in mid-September to bring together a diverse group of voices willing to discuss race relations and the frustrations and questions that come with it. Protests and rallies dealing with race in recent months have primarily involved people marching or preaching to like-minded folks, which Marshall hopes to change with his upcoming charrette.

“These conversations can’t be one-sided. We don’t need another room of civil rights leaders talking about racism to persons of color,” Marshall said. “We need some structured confrontation.”

Marshall, who was raised in Winston-Salem and has lived in the Triad his entire life, has pastored at the Christ Cathedral of the Triad for 30 years and received his doctorate in cognitive studies in 2016. He said human behavior is a major part of what he is trained to observe and, right now, he is concerned.Marshall said he is mentoring several young Black leaders in the Triad and their frustration is not easing but rather intensifying each week.

He said he is concerned that when the people leading the movement are confronted by people who don’t share their ideologies, conversations are not guided or productive, but instead filled with anger from both sides.

While there are plenty of people supporting the Black Lives Matter movement who are vocal, Marshall said, it’s proving more difficult to find people with opposing views who are willing to speak publicly.

Marshall said some people don’t want to show their faces and share their ideologies for fear of backlash.

“What we’re doing is challenging them to come out of these quiet, clandestine spaces, so that their voices can be heard,” he said.

Marshall said the Racial Accountability Cohort plans to use the debate over whether to remove Confederate statues as a talking point to incite discussion. For several years, people have debated whether the statues and monuments memorializing Confederate soldiers in towns across the country should be removed. Some people argue that the monuments are a part of Southern history that should remain; others contend they are painful reminders that glorify slavery and those who defended it.

In an attempt to get those voices into the same space, Marshall said he reached out to such groups as the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, inviting them to talk alongside supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement who have already committed to being a part of the charrette.

Marshall said that so far, he has only had one person on the “other side” give a “soft confirmation” that they will attend the charrette in September, but he needs more willing participants.

“I don’t think it will be impossible,” he said. “We’ve got to make the other side know this is a structured conversation.”

The Racial Accountability Cohort plans to use discussion to develop strategies and suggestions for change to individuals and institutions that are prepared to alter their conscious and unconscious biases.

Board member Kristen Johnson said she’s excited to be a part of the conversation. Johnson, a 30-year-old millennial who lives in Virginia but attended Winston-Salem State University, a historically black college and university, said her passion for racial equality and justice inspired her to accept Marshall’s invitation to be on his group’s board of directors.

“We’re trying to initiate true change,” she said.

Johnson said she has witnessed systemic racism firsthand working at a Fortune 500 company in Richmond, Va., and other Black professionals agree there is a disparity in advancement rates.

Johnson said she hopes her perspective will help to make a difference at the charrette in September. She said she is hopeful the group with incite lasting change and feels more confident than ever that now is the time in the wake of the “shock wave” caused by Floyd’s death.

“It’s opened a form of dialogue we hadn’t seen,” she said. She said she has been impressed by the number of formerly silent companies who have in recent months spoken up and addressed racial injustices. She said she is looking for the same kind of change within individuals.

“Change starts with the individual,” Johnson said, and if the charrette is able to open the eyes of a handful of people, she said it will be a success.

Like their name suggests, Marshall said holding people accountable is crucial, and while the charrette is a goal the group is working toward, it’s not its only community outreach. He said the group is also reaching out to smaller organizations and to businesses to offer its services on a smaller scale.

“Sometimes diversity in the workplace is the only diversity some people experience,” Marshall said. “Outside of that, they are in their own world.”

He said he wants to open the floor at those businesses to have open discussions about race, which he said often prove to increase productivity in the workplace.

Marshall said that with people working away from their offices right now because of COVID-19, “I don’t think a lot of people have given thought to what it would be like if we were in this moment without COVID.”

“I don’t think people are considering what our schools would be like if all of this was happening while our children are still in classrooms or while our teenagers are still playing football and basketball and interacting,” he said.

Marshall said the Racial Accountability Cohort will also hold local community leaders accountable. He pointed out that Greensboro, like Winston-Salem, has a Black police chief and Guilford County, like Forsyth County, has a Black sheriff. He said some people can be hesitant in questioning those leaders because they are Black.

“We have to have conversations that are difficult,” he said. “Sometimes we give a pass to people because of their color, and that is just wrong.”

Marshall said he is not saying there is a problem with the sheriff or police chief but rather “the construct of the institution has to be challenged. We’ve got to pull these threads apart to see exactly where the issues are.”

In the meantime, as Marshall fosters community conversations, he continues searching for people willing to join the charrette tentatively scheduled for Sept. 14 at the Conference Center at GTCC at the college's Cameron Campus. Marshall said those interested don’t have to be a part of a specific group — they just have to be willing to have an open dialogue and voice their opinions in a group setting.

“Our success with this will not be to take a Ku Klux Klan member and cause them to be best friends with a Black Lives Matter member,” Marshall said. “Our plan — long term — is to foster a way to have the conversations constructively.”

An interesting article in today's newspaper

Bottom's up: People are drinking more amid pandemic, study says

RALEIGH — A new study reaffirms what many people have suspected about the coronavirus pandemic: The longer it goes, the more people are drinking to cope.

Parents. Women. African Americans. The unemployed. They all increased their alcohol consumption between February and April, according to a study released Tuesday by RTI International, a nonprofit research institute in Research Triangle Park.

“After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 and also Hurricane Katrina, there was sustained increases in alcohol consumption,” said Carolina Barbosa, a health economist at RTI. “The weeks of isolation imposed by stay-at-home policies and the scale of the current pandemic are unmatched by these recent disasters.”

Liquor sales in North Carolina surged 21% last month compared with June 2019, the N.C. ABC Commission reported. Sales also jumped 21% in March.

RTI surveyed nearly 1,000 people online in the United States last month to see how their alcohol consumption changed between February and April.

States across the country implemented different shelter-in-place measures beginning in March to slow the spread of COVID-19. Gov. Roy Cooper ordered North Carolinians to stay at home beginning March 25.

The respondents on average upped their daily alcohol intake from 0.74 drinks in February to 0.94 in April, RTI said.

About 35% reported excessive drinking in April, compared with 29% in February, and 27% reported binge drinking. The survey did not differentiate between different types of alcohol.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism recommends that women do not consume more than three drinks per day and seven drinks per week and men no more than four drinks per day and 14 drinks per week.

RTI defined excessive drinking as anyone who drank more than this total. Binge drinking, RTI said, is when a man consumes more than four drinks in two hours and a woman consumes over three in the same time frame.

About 10% of respondents don’t drink at all, the study found.

“We also saw large increases in consumption among those who were not drinking in excess of recommended guidelines in February,” Barbosa said. “And this is especially concerning, because this is not people who always drank a lot suddenly drinking more, this is people who drank within the guidelines drinking a lot more.”

Deep dive into numbers

The study breaks down the respondents’ answers by race. White people reported consuming about one drink a day, which is more than any other racial group, but Black people reported the most excessive drinking, the study said. RTI said 66% of survey respondents were white, 19% were Hispanic, 9% were Black and 7% were “other.”

“As we saw with females, nonwhite respondents increased more in relative terms because those groups drank less than white respondents did in February,” said William Dowd, a research economist at RTI.

Women reported more binge and excessive drinking than men between February and April. Unemployed people drank twice as much as people with jobs in the last few months. About 30% of respondents said they drank seven more days per month than they did before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“About a quarter of the sample reported having kids in the household, and three-quarters did not,” Dowd said. “Respondents with kids reported an increase in drinks per day that was more than four times as large on average than the subgroup without kids.”

People who live in the West drank 0.35 more drinks in April than February — the highest increase of any region. People who live in the South reported consuming 0.16 more drinks than usual during this period.

Why is this happening?

RTI said it believes people drank more in April than February because people had more leisure time and were stressed about the coronavirus pandemic. Lax alcohol policies made it easier for these people to buy alcohol, Barbosa said.

“After the enactment of stay-at-home orders in many states and the relaxation of several state alcohol regulations, alcohol consumption, including drinking above the recommended guidelines and binge drinking, increased,” Barbosa said.

State officials in Maryland, New Jersey and New York deemed liquor stores essential, and restaurants in New York, Vermont, Nebraska, Colorado and California can sell drinks for takeout and delivery.

North Carolina, however, has not relaxed alcohol restrictions. But the state is allowing stores to sell alcohol for curbside pickup as these businesses struggle because of the pandemic.

“North Carolina ... in fact tightened (alcohol regulations),” said Jeff Strickland, a spokesperson for the N.C. ABC Commission. “For example, no on-site consumption of alcohol was allowed at any ABC-permitted business during Phase One, and some businesses are still unable to have on-site consumption during Phase Two.”

North Carolina is still in Phase Two of the state’s coronavirus reopening plan. Gov. Roy Cooper announced Tuesday that he would extend the time frame for another three weeks for the second time.

Long-term effects of alcohol consumption

Alcohol consumption is the third-leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. behind tobacco and poor diets, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Almost 6% of deaths worldwide in 2012 were connected to alcohol consumption, according to the World Health Organization.

“(A) big question is whether relaxed rules on alcohol sales can become permanent after the pandemic,” Barbosa said. “If these measures are not reversed post-pandemic, they have the potential to increase population-level alcohol consumption and corresponding harms for the long term.”

Kurtis Taylor, the executive director of the Alcohol/Drug Council of North Carolina, said the coronavirus pandemic is causing stress and anxiety that makes some people want to drink more.

“I think that the shelter-in-place aspect has had devastating and long-term effects — many that we haven’t seen the full results from yet,” Taylor said in a statement. “People are developing issues that will not be easily shaken.”