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To Play or Not to Play?

A monster rivalry, a national TV audience on two networks, and crazier than expected accumulation of snow on the Triangle's roadways shined a light on the ACC's inclement weather policy and forced a reasonable decision on the UNC/Duke game to be made hours after it should have been.

James Michael McAdoo gets in some free throw practice after Carolina-Duke game was postponed.
James Michael McAdoo gets in some free throw practice after Carolina-Duke game was postponed.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

I can certainly identify with Bubba Cunningham.

In my other life, I am a school administrator. Every winter, school districts all across North Carolina wrestle with crucial decisions to be made as it relates to wintry precipitation. Superintendents and school administrators weigh all the factors and make decisions that potentially impact thousands of students, employees, and their families. Moreover, many other businesses such as camps and daycares follow school decisions, so when schools close, open late, or dismiss early, these places do as well. And there's often no way to win. Make the call too early, or the weather comes in later than forecast, and there are hundreds of disgruntled parents upset that school was cancelled and nothing happened. Make the call too late and you risk the lives of children in school buses ill-designed to navigate snow and ice.

For those of you who don't live within 100 miles of the Triangle, it may be hard to fathom exactly what happened early Wednesday afternoon. The snow arrived quickly and heavily, and while having been predicted for a few days, it came in harder and stuck to road surfaces faster than anyone expected. Many businesses who had been planning to close around lunchtime did so, and just as happened in Raleigh in 2005, hundreds of thousands of people hit the road in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area at the same time, and with predictable results.

By mid-afternoon, the main roads were parking lots, and literally thousands of people were abandoning cars and either walking home or seeking shelter in malls and hotel lobbies. Tim Brando, who was scheduled to call the game with Dan Bonner on the ACC Network, live-tweeted his hours-long journey to the Smith Center, and ESPN's Dick Vitale tweeted that he was stranded at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and was having trouble making it to Chapel Hill. With the Triangle in the grips of an icy white snowmageddon, it seemed only logical that the UNC/Duke game be postponed.

Not so fast, my friend.

The ACC has an inclement weather policy that states, in essence, if both teams, officials, and game operations personnel can make it in, then the game will be played. There are no provisions for fans, or media, or worldwide television networks. By late afternoon, UNC's team and game operations crew had made it to the arena. Even as Cunningham was encouraging people to stay home and Governor Pat McCrory was doing the same, lamenting that he could not go to the game either, UNC was making arrangements to play, encouraging students who were on campus to come to the game whether or not they had tickets.

Meanwhile, outside the weather conditions continued to deteriorate. The snow had changed over to freezing rain and sleet, adding a layer of ice to the 3-4 inches of snow that had fallen in the afternoon. Chapel Hill Transit announced there would not be bus service to the game. The only remaining bus in question was the Duke team bus, which was scheduled to leave Durham at 6:00 for the 9:00 tipoff. As traffic cameras showed the roads in Durham to be covered in snow and ice and looking like a parking lot, it did not seem possible that the Blue Devils would be able to make it.

Still, as the hour approached 5:00, the game remained on as scheduled. The game was shaping up to be something surreal, possibly played in front of thousands of students and die-hards who braved the elements to get to Skipper Bowles Drive. The atmosphere at other "throw open the doors to anyone who shows up" games, like Iowa in 1989 or Maryland in 2000 were unimaginable. Media members, like Bret Stretlow of the Fayetteville Observer, took to hiking in the snow to cover the game. Die-hard fans, like R.L. Bynum, who was going to share the game with his son, did the same. Hundreds of students who had braved the elements to get to the game were housed in the adjacent Koury Natatorium while the game preparations were made. Finally at 5:41 pm, the announcement was made that Duke could not successfully make the trip and the game was postponed.

So what took so long to make such an obvious decision? The answer is quite simple: this was Carolina and Duke we were talking about. Two broadcast networks, millions of viewers, and a national television audience, plain and simple. If this were UNC and Duke in swimming, the postponement would have been made about the time both campuses announced they were closing down (which occurred around lunchtime on Wednesday). Even the announcement that the Georgia Tech/Boston College game was postponed came well in advance of Duke/Carolina. The powers that be wanted to wait until the last possible second to make the call, and once it became clear that not only could it not be guaranteed that Duke could make it to Chapel Hill but also not make it home safely, there was no choice but to delay the game.

It was interesting to follow the social media reaction throughout the afternoon on Wednesday. At first there was much incredulity that there was not an almost instant postponement, as many accused the ACC of being held hostage by ESPN and their broadcast dollars. Then, once it became clear that Duke's inability to get to the game was the deciding factor, much derision was cast up Highway 15-501 for being pansies and not braving the weather to play in front of a rabid, raucous mostly-student crowd. In fact, UNC faced similar circumstances just a few weeks ago in Atlanta against Georgia Tech, and Pitt's women's team made it into Chapel Hill just ahead of the weather for Thursday's scheduled game against the Tar Heel women.

Of course, while I never miss an opportunity to cast derision upon Duke, they were simply the final piece of the ACC's inclement weather policy to fall into place. Game ops, officials, and one team were in place at 5:41 pm, but it was patently unsafe and unsound to expect Duke to travel in those conditions. The problem is, it was also patently obvious at 2:41 pm that there was no business playing the game in those conditions. While the ACC's policy makes no concession for fans, the safety of staff and student-athletes should be of primary concern, period. The league should have conferred with its broadcast partners, with Duke and UNC officials, and with weather forecasters to make a decision that was in the best interest of all involved. That's what we do when it comes to making weather-related decisions in our school district, and it's not that hard, even if not everyone likes the way it turns out. We always try to put safety first and err on the side of caution; the ACC and its partners should be ashamed they did not do the same.