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Coronavirus fears push two college basketball leagues to suspend postgame handshakes

With the death toll rising and the number of reported cases of the coronavirus increasing across the United States, college athletics officials are taking a cautious approach to March Madness.

With conference tournaments kicking off this week and building to a crescendo of three weeks of NCAA tournament games, collegiate officials are monitoring the virus closely. There have been a few cancelled games, plenty of official statements using the phrase “abundance of caution” and calls for postseason games to be played without crowds.

One other tangible impact of the coronavirus in the college sports world emerged this week – suggested alterations to the postgame handshake lines in conference basketball tournaments. Both the Atlantic 10 conference and the America East conference have taken steps to mitigate risk in the wake of the virus by altering the postgame handshake line.

In the Atlantic 10, the “pre and post-game protocol of student-athlete handshakes have been suspended.” They have substituted forearm bumps instead. In the America East they also suspended “all handshakes” both pre- and post-game “between players, coaches, officials, game administrators and others as a precaution.” They are calling for forearm or elbow bumps be put in place.

“Part of our diligence in attempting to limit the spread of germs,” associate commissioner Sean Tainsh said in a statement.

Players fight for a loose ball during an Atlantic 10 Conference basketball game between the University of Massachusetts Minutemen and the Saint Louis Billikens (Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

With so little known about the virus, many leagues are taking other precautions. One conference commissioner told Yahoo Sports on Thursday that there will be extra measures taken to kill germs at that league’s conference tournament.

“We’re paying attention, and it’s a growing story,” the commissioner said. “We’re disinfecting locker rooms and bench areas and the balls used in the games. There’s a focus on internal team hygiene. Those are clearly things we have a heightened level of awareness regarding.”

Others wonder if perhaps the elimination of the handshake is going a bit far, considering that there will be nearly 20 players competing and sweating in close quarters for 40 minutes before the handshake lines.

“If kids are playing with the same ball for 40 minutes and sweating on each other, what more harm can a handshake postgame do,” said the official at a Power Five school.

Regardless of the level of action so far, it’s becoming clear that the coronavirus will be among the most prominent college basketball storylines this March. More adjustments will likely be made.

Chicago State University men’s basketball team cancelled a pair of road games scheduled for Thursday at Seattle University and March 7 at Utah Valley State. (The CSU women’s team will also not host games against those two teams.) Missouri-Kansas City has also decided not to travel to its game at Seattle University. The Seattle area has emerged as one of the American epicenters of the virus, as the New York Times has reported 46 cases in the state of Washington.

“While disappointed that the situation has evolved as it has, I fully respect the right of any member institution to determine what it believes to in the best interest of its student-athletes,” WAC commissioner Jeff Hurd said in a statement. “From a conference standpoint, the necessary adjustments will be made according to NCAA policy in order to bracket the conference tournament scheduled for March 11-14 at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas.”

The WAC, which includes Seattle University, Chicago State and Utah Valley State, released a statement that mirrors the approach of many leagues and college officials.

“The health and safety of our student-athletes, school and conference personnel and all attendees to events on our campuses is of the utmost importance to us,” the statement said. “We are taking this matter very seriously and will continue to monitor this issue as it pertains to our campuses.”

Other sports leagues around the globe have chosen to adopt different measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus, including holding sporting events behind closed doors. The NCAA established a panel in response to the outbreak of the coronavirus in the United States, but still plans to conduct its championships as planned.

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