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Guest Column: Did politics cost the Wolfpack their shot?

By Gary Pearce

As an N.C. State alum and avid fan, I was dismayed and disappointed when the NCAA threw the Wolfpack baseball team out of the College World Series.

Then it got political.

“Politics” was the word Head Coach Elliot Avent used when pressed about his team’s Covid vaccinations: “If you want to talk baseball, we can talk baseball. If you want to talk politics or stuff like that, you can go talk to my head of sports medicine.”

Then the politicians piled on. Former Republican Governor Pat McCrory, who is running for U.S. Senate, started a petition: “The NCAA may have tried to CANCEL the NC State Wolfpack, but we won’t let their nonsense continue. Sign our petition to DEMAND the NCAA President be FIRED and that NC State be able to compete for a championship!”

The controversy reignited what The News & Observer called “a years-long feud between North Carolina Republicans and the NCAA.” The NCAA had canceled events in North Carolina after the legislature enacted and McCrory signed the controversial House Bill 2 transgender-bathroom bill. The bill contributed to his narrow loss to Democrat Roy Cooper in 2016.

Republican Senator Thom Tillis took a swing at bat. He said the NCAA “embarrassed itself” and the Wolfpack deserved a shot to play for the championship. More than 60 Republican legislators, and three Democrats, signed a letter demanding that NCAA officials answer questions about the disqualification.

All this raises a question: Why didn’t the players get vaccinated long ago and avoid the risk of disqualification?

The answer may be that universities were told they couldn’t require vaccinations. In an April 29 memo to university chancellors, UNC System President Peter Hans wrote:

“Public health officials across the country are working toward full vaccination by lowering barriers to access, creating incentives, and persuading hesitant community members. In the absence of clear legal authority for a mandate, the UNC System will follow a similar approach.”

Hans’ statement about “no clear legal authority for a mandate” is arguable, some lawyers maintain. “The government can require seatbelts,” said one. Another noted, “Decades ago the US Supreme Court held that a New York city could require citizens be vaccinated for smallpox.”

Universities can require them too. Duke University and Wake Forest University, both private universities, require vaccinations. The University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, both public universities, do too. Students entering the UNC system students have to prove they’ve had a series of immunizations – diphtheria/tetanus/pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella and Hepatitis B.

Hans, the UNC president, is a savvy and experienced political player. He’s a Republican who is liked and respected by Democrats, myself included. He has to be sensitive to the legislature, which appoints the Board of Governors, which has the power to hire and fire presidents.

UNC-Chapel Hill has been embroiled for weeks now in the Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure controversy. In today’s climate, Hans may well have felt the need to consult with powerful Republican politicians like Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Speaker Tim Moore about vaccination mandates.

Just as some people at UNC-Chapel Hill believe Berger opposed Hannah-Jones, some people at N.C. State are certain Berger’s hand was behind Hans’s stance.

Since the pandemic erupted last year, Republican politicians in North Carolina and across the country have mocked mask-wearing, opposed shutdowns and resisted vaccinations.

Now, when you see some of the same politicians blaming the NCAA for the Wolfpack’s fate, ask yourself where the ultimate responsibility lies. Covid vaccinations have become political, and that has consequences. N.C. State’s lost dream of a national baseball championship is the latest consequence.

Gary Pearce was a reporter and editor at The News & Observer, a political consultant, and an adviser to Governor Jim Hunt (1976-1984 and 1992-2000). He blogs about politics and public policy at www.NewDayforNC.com.    

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