Opinion: Penny Hardaway's negligence around COVID, his Memphis basketball players threaten season

Mark Giannotto
Memphis Commercial Appeal
  • Memphis only had four players available for Saturday’s game vs. Vols
  • Forfeit came after 2 guards tested positive and the rest of the team went through contact tracing
  • Hardaway addressed questions about his players' vaccination status Sunday

MEMPHIS — Memphis basketball didn’t duck Tennessee. It didn’t go out partying the night before like the rumor so many Vols fans grabbed hold of in the aftermath of Saturday’s canceled game in Nashville. 

It’s just a team full of unvaccinated players, with a coach who can’t get out of his own way. 

That’s probably the most generous way to describe what a mess this season has been for Memphis (6-4). Just as it’s probably generous to say Penny Hardaway “misspoke” in the preseason when he announced about 90% of his roster was vaccinated. 

Turns out that wasn’t true. Probably not even close. 

It’s the only logical explanation for why Memphis only had four players available for Saturday’s game, according to Hardaway, after guards Tyler Harris and Landers Nolley tested positive for COVID-19 and the rest of the team went through contact tracing protocols. Hardaway confirmed Sunday when he spoke with reporters for the first time since the canceled game that vaccinated players don’t have to sit out when a teammate tests positive for COVID-19. 

Put those two sentences together and it’s a safe bet a large portion of the Tigers’ 17-man roster isn’t vaccinated. 

Bridgestone Arena after an announcement that the Saturday's Memphis Tigers basketball game against the Tennessee Volunteers had been abruptly cancelled.

This isn’t even about public health anymore, or the fact that getting vaccinated is the right thing to do for society’s sake. This is about a competitive disadvantage Memphis is inflicting on itself based on the current COVID-19 protocols instituted by the American Athletic Conference.

This is about what happened in Nashville happening again, when Memphis would have to forfeit if it can’t field enough players. This is about a roster that’s a ticking time bomb because another positive COVID-19 test would trigger the program going on pause again.

The reality is that a successful season, a season that finally returns Memphis to the NCAA Tournament, is needlessly in jeopardy again. Or, really, it has been in jeopardy the entire time, ever since all these players elected to remain unvaccinated and Hardaway stood by and acted as if nothing was wrong with this situation.

That’s how his preseason assertion, that about 90% of his roster was vaccinated, appears now.

Hardaway has a habit of just saying things to say them, to say what he thinks people want to hear, whether it’s the size of his playing rotation or the eligibility of James Wiseman once upon a time. But his comments on this will be hard to live down, even if you believe that what he said wasn’t intentionally false.

Memphis Tigers Head Coach Penny Hardaway yells out to his team as they take on the Lane Dragons during their game at FedExForum on Sunday, Oct. 31, 2021.

ANALYSIS:Why Memphis basketball needed to play Tennessee and what can be done to make up for it

“Well, I think, initially, when I talked to the guys earlier, they were all talking about being vaccinated and then I never visited it again. So I probably misspoke,” Hardaway said when asked about the 90% figure Sunday. “But a lot of the guys were talking about it back then and I never even thought about it again after that.”

So he’s either careless or naïve or not telling the truth again, and any way you shake it, he’s as much to blame for this as anyone.

It’s one thing if he couldn’t convince these players to get vaccinated, if the players or their families refused to get vaccinated or don’t believe in vaccinations. But for the program to then operate as if it wasn’t a COVID-19 shutdown waiting to happen given the guidelines Memphis was operating under is reckless

To never think about such an important detail again until this weekend, to never follow up again until that detail cost Memphis and its fans the biggest game on the schedule, is negligent. 

“It never happened, so they were like, ‘It’s not going to happen,’” said Hardaway, who confirmed again he is vaccinated. “But now that it’s happened, I think most of them are probably thinking, ‘Man, what if this happens again? What if this happens in the conference tournament? What if this happens in the NCAA tournament?’ Then our season is going to be over.

"That’s something that they have to think about with their parents. Obviously, this can rear its ugly head again and come from any unvaccinated person in our building. It could be the same thing. You don’t want this to keep happening, so hopefully the families will think more about it now that this has happened.”

Hopefully, Hardaway thinks more about what he says and does after this embarrassing episode.

Hopefully, he convinces those players to get vaccinated, if only because the season depends on it now that positive COVID-19 cases are skyrocketing again.

Hopefully, he understands this is yet another example of how his own sloppiness is threatening to destroy all the buzz and enthusiasm he has generated for the program. 

Hopefully, he realizes that, for as much as he wants Tennessee to be willing to reschedule Saturday’s game, Rick Barnes is right to not want to reschedule it this season.

Why risk putting his team on the court against an opponent full of unvaccinated players, against a coach who claims he didn’t even bother to check if they’re vaccinated? Why risk doing to his team what Hardaway did to the Tigers on Saturday?

You can reach Commercial Appeal columnist Mark Giannotto via email at mgiannotto@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter: @mgiannotto