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AP photo by Mark Zaleski / Tennessee forward Olivier Nkamhoua sits on the sideline at Bridgestone Arena after Saturday's basketball game between the Vols and Memphis was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols for the Tigers.

On March 12, 2020, the University of Tennessee men's basketball team was warming up for a Southeastern Conference tournament game against Alabama at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena when the entire tourney was abruptly canceled over the coronavirus pandemic.

On Saturday morning, less than 70 minutes before the Volunteers were to take that same Bridgestone court against Memphis for a nationally televised game, the game was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols for the Tigers.

So 21 months removed from no SEC or NCAA tournaments, and less than a year removed from a convoluted college hoops season marred by canceled games, limited crowds and an NCAA tourney basically played in an Indianapolis bubble, are we really, as we had all hoped, anywhere near the end of this pandemic and all its restrictions?

Or are we instead racing headlong into another winter of sports discontent, along with everything else in our lives?

Let's be clear. This unfortunate round of schedule changes was in no way confined to the Volunteer State. Ohio State canceled its CBS Sports Classic showdown against Kentucky in Las Vegas because of coronavirus issues. The NFL moved dates and times on three of its games this weekend for the same reason. The NBA has been forced to postpone games and attempt to play on as much as possible with vastly depleted rosters.

A single example: The Brooklyn Nets have nine players in the protocol. Beyond that, ESPN noted that more than 20 men's college hoops games and more than 35 women's games have already been canceled this season for reasons related to the coronavirus.

The more things change ...

To his credit, Tennessee coach Rick Barnes gave the fans already inside Bridgestone at the time of the cancellation — and all ticket purchases will be returned at 100% of face value — an early Christmas treat by having the Vols conduct an intrasquad scrimmage.

Wittily wrote "VolBandit3" in a Twitter post of that move: "I hope Memphis fans stay for the scrimmage so they can see the best basketball team and coach in the state."

But as another surge — spearheaded this time by the unpredictable Omicron variant — appears to be taking hold, it's at least prudent to wonder if the nation's health might best be served by at least scaling back on the goal of sold-out arenas filled with unmasked, somewhat vaccinated fans.

How widespread is this latest surge? According to a New York Times database, the United States experienced 120,000 new cases a day during the past week, a jump of 31%. The U.S. death toll for COVID-19 has now topped 800,000, with more than 200,000 of those coming after the vaccine was available to everyone since late this past spring.

And while we now know you can still get the virus and its variants after receiving two doses of the vaccine, all evidence shows your chance of severe illness or death is greatly diminished by the vaccine.

Which brings us to the Rose Bowl's current plan to deal with an expected crowd of 92,000 for its New Year's Day game between Ohio State and Utah. Because of rules set in place by the Pasadena (California) Department of Health, the event will require all fans to show proof of vaccination or a negative test result within 72 hours of the game. All fans will also be required to wear masks unless they are actively eating or drinking.

One can't help but wonder why all sporting events and large public gatherings in general aren't adopting these same measures.

This would seem especially true of all indoor events this winter, beginning with the College Football Playoff title game on Jan. 10 at Lucas Oil Stadium, the domed venue that is home to the NFL's Indianapolis Colts. Adding to that, thousands of college administrators will crowd into Indy a week later for the NCAA's annual convention. The NCAA said this past week it has no plans to increase safety protocols for either event, though that could change.

John Swartzberg, an infectious disease and vaccinology professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, told The Associated Press of staging those events without increased protocols: "That would be a terrible mistake. Looking at the trajectory, it's hard to believe we'll be out of this Delta surge and the Omicron surge by then."

Why we keep seem to be making the same terrible mistakes is what should concern us all the most.

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AP photo by Mark Zaleski / Tennessee forward Jonas Aidoo walks off the court at Bridgestone Arena after Saturday's basketball game between the Vols and Memphis was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols for the Tigers. The Vols wound up playing an intrasquad scrimmage in front of the fans who made it inside the venue before the game, which was set to be nationally televised, was called off.

McCarter will be Mel Allen honoree

Former Chattanooga News-Free Press sports writer and columnist Mark McCarter was named the recipient of the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame's highest media honor this past week, when it was announced he'll receive the 2022 Mel Allen Media Award at the ASHOF's 54th annual induction banquet and ceremony on May 7.

The award was created to honor those in the state of Alabama who have made a lifetime contribution to sports through their work as a media member. The award is named after 1974 inductee Mel Allen, the Birmingham native who was known as the "Voice of the New York Yankees" for two decades.

McCarter has spent 50 years in the media as a writer, editor (Anniston Star) and Huntsville Times columnist, and he was named Alabama's sports writer of the year four times and best sports columnist by the Associated Press Sports Editors on another occasion. He has recently joined the University of Alabama in Huntsville in a public relations position.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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