CHICAGO — The complaining lasted a week.
OK, it lasted a couple of weeks. All right, maybe it was a month.
Yet DePaul women’s basketball players have dutifully worn face masks during every practice since Aug. 7 and all three of their games this season.
“We’re pretty used to it,” senior guard Deja Church said. “We complained a lot about it. But like Coach (Doug) Bruno says, ‘We’re going to make adversity our best friend.’ With or without masks, we’ll play to the best of our abilities. We’re not going to make masks an excuse.”
Seeing coaches and players wearing masks on sidelines has become routine as a precaution during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But players competing in them? That’s rare.
The NCAA and the Big East Conference do not require masks on the court.
DePaul’s medical experts advised that university teams should not be involved in team activities without masks. All teams have worn them in practices and workouts since returning to campus in August.
But the No. 20 women’s basketball team is the only DePaul team to play so far. The men’s basketball schedule has been delayed because of COVID-19 cases in the program.
Few teams nationwide have elected to wear masks during competition.
Eight of Creighton’s 13 players on the women’s basketball team wear masks during games, a choice coach Jim Flanery left up to each player. The men’s team — the only other team in competition on campus — does not wear masks.
Notre Dame volleyball players also wore masks in competition.
“I’m really proud of our team the way they’re working to maintain this COVID discipline,” Bruno said. “They’ve come back with a great gusto to play. They’ve worked hard. They’ve tolerated the masks in practice. They’ve really been troopers. I’m proud of them.”
Masks can make communication more difficult during games. They can make breathing feel more labored.
“It definitely tests your mental toughness,” DePaul junior guard Sonya Morris said. “It’s real strict. We really have to keep the mask over our noses. Doug wasn’t playing games. We really had to mentally fight through the fatigue, breathing in heat. It got worse when the mask got wet from the sweat. It was really hard. But we got used to it and adapted.”
And while it doesn’t affect games, skin care can be an issue.
Bruno left the fabric choices to players. Morris opted for cloth masks because surgical masks caused her face to break out, while Church had the opposite experience.
Bruno said he’s simply following medical guidance. He has noticed masks don’t always stay in place during games, and he received clarification Tuesday from DePaul’s medical team that wearing masks wouldn’t necessarily keep players from being quarantined in contact tracing if it was determined a positive-testing player competed in a game.
He said he’ll continue to have discussions about “to what degree are they useful during the game.”
“I’m a team player who listens to our medical people,” Bruno said.
Masks or not, DePaul has high expectations this season. The Blue Demons broke a team scoring record in a 128-66 victory Monday against Chicago State after losing their opener, 93-91, to No. 13 Texas A&M. Their breakneck speed should make Friday’s game against No. 5 Louisville in the Jimmy V Classic an entertaining meeting — and a great opportunity for the Blue Demons.
Led by Morris’ 21.5 points per game, DePaul aims to make its 18th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance.
“We’ve been working so hard these last few months,” Morris said. “We’re nowhere done getting better. I feel like we’ll keep grinding, and the sky isn’t the limit. We have the whole universe to go.”
DePaul is making statements on the court in other ways too.
Nine players chose to kneel during the national anthem before games as a protest against racism. Many of those who stood placed a hand on the shoulder of a kneeling teammate.
Bruno, who stands as a remembrance of friends who died in military service and to honor his parents who served, left the choice to the players. He spoke to new DePaul athletic director Dewayne Peevy in the preseason about the best approach.
“I want you to know you have a choice,” he said he told players who voiced concerns about racial injustice. He asked them not to judge each other for whatever decision a teammate makes.
Players said they haven’t received backlash from fans for their decision. Kneeling during the anthem been a controversial form of protest for athletes since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt on the sideline in 2016.
No team has signed Kaepernick since. But kneeling in protest against police brutality has become more common among NBA and WNBA players in recent years, especially after a wave of high-profile killings of unarmed Black people this year sparked national protests.
Having the option to protest without worrying about repercussions from coaches or administrators was a relief, DePaul players said.
“I think that’s pretty amazing,” said Church, a transfer from Michigan. “My freshman year I was at a different institution and was told if we’re going to kneel, everyone has to do it. When (Bruno) brought it up to us as a team, I thought it was cool how times have changed and it gave us a voice to speak up for what we believe in.”
Their maturity and leadership makes Bruno think the Blue Demons have potential. Their conviction — whether it’s following health guidelines or speaking against inequalities — makes them stand out.
“They’re impressing with me,” Bruno said, “with their COVID discipline and genuine concern for social justice that does show tolerance for one another.”
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