Instead of traveling to Blacksburg for its scheduled game against Virginia Tech on Saturday, the East Carolina football team headed south to ride out Hurricane Florence in the safe harbor of Orlando, FL.
It was a logical move given the severity of the storm and the experience school officials gained from previous natural disasters, including Hurricane Matthew just two years ago.
Logical, that is, to just about everyone other than those associated with Virginia Tech.
And we’re not just talking about fanboys disappointed that they’d have to spend a September Saturday without watching their beloved Hokies play. It was none other than athletic director Whit Babcock that sparked the outrage last Tuesday afternoon by issuing a statement taking exception to the Pirates’ early decision not to make the trip.
“We certainly understand the need for safety, of course, we just felt that tomorrow (Wednesday), making the decision then, would’ve been more responsible and accurate,” Babcock stated, according to a tweet from the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We informed ECU of this multiple times.”
Babcock later tried to clarify his statement after being confronted on social media, claiming that his intent wasn’t to be “insensitive.”
But by then, it was too late — especially after a since-deleted post from Tech’s official football Twitter account boasted that “Hokies are waterproof,” a reference to their 34-3 drubbing of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 2016.
Intended or not, the two messages conveyed a disturbing message. That at Virginia Tech, football is more important than the well-being of those playing or watching the game.
It was a theme picked up on by multiple fans, including one suggesting that Blacksburg would have been a suitable place for the Pirates and their fans to evacuate as the storm hit. And since they were there, they might as well play a little football.
Never mind that virtually every other school in the region had already made a similar decision to cancel, postpone or relocate their games. That includes Tech’s rival Virginia, which opted to move its game against Ohio to Nashville, TN.
Never mind that at the time of the cancellation, Florence’s track still had it heading north and stalling out over nearby Roanoke. Or that even if the Pirates had waited, the game would still likely not have been played.
Most of all, never mind that while Hokies fans were drowning their sorrows about not getting to indulge in their pre- and postgame gin buckets in the parking lot of Lane Stadium on Saturday, people in Eastern North Carolina were actually drowning in the storm surge and flooding the hurricane brought ashore.
And it doesn’t matter that the effects of the hurricane weren’t as bad in Greenville as they were in other areas of coastal North Carolina.
As of Sunday evening, almost 700,000 people were still without power throughout the state. More than 20,000 people were displaced from their homes, crowding into 157 shelters. To put that into perspective, only 4,071 people were displayed by Hurricane Matthew in 2016.
Fifteen people have already died as a result of the storm.
The Neuse River in Kinston is already at 22 feet, well above the 14-foot flood stage, with the National Weather Service forecasting that the river will continue to rise past 25 feet. The Cape Fear and Lumber rivers aren’t far behind, the flooding of which have closed portions of Interstates 40 and 95. USA Today, citing the Weather Channel, reported that nearly 20 rivers in the Carolinas were expected to crest in major flood stage this week.
Had the Pirates chosen to go to Blacksville and played Saturday as scheduled, it may have been nearly impossible for them or anyone else that attended the game to get home. More important, it would have put people’s lives in danger just for them to try.
It’s a similar situation to the one ECU faced two years ago when it couldn’t immediately get back to Greenville following its game at South Florida during Matthew. The following week’s game against Navy had to be rescheduled.
By going to Orlando instead of Blacksburg, coach Scottie Montgomery and his players were not only out of harm’s way from the storm, but they were also in a place at which they could adequately prepare for next week’s American Athletic Conference opener at South Florida in case conditions prevented an immediate return to North Carolina.
“The location was determined based on the track of Hurricane Florence and lodging availability, along with lessons learned from recent past difficulties returning home to an area impacted by widespread flooding,” an ECU athletic spokesman said in a statement.
Those are things Babcock and others in Virginia Tech’s athletic administration should know and be sympathetic to, particularly because of the relationship between the Hokies and ECU.
It was the Pirates, remember, that played Tech in its first home game following the tragic 2007 school shootings that left 32 students dead and 17 more wounded. As a show of sympathy and solidarity, ECU donated $100,000 to the Hokie Spirit Memorial Fund — a gesture that prompted Tech fans to chant “Thank you ECU” when the check was presented on the field.
Now fast forward 11 years.
When put in a position to return the favor and show some support and compassion for ECU, Tech fumbled the ball. What’s worse, it could potentially try to force the Pirates into paying a $500,000 penalty for “backing out” of Saturday’s game.
Though such remuneration might be written in the contract between the schools, in no way should it be invoked under the circumstances.
ECU and Virginia Tech have played each other 10 times over the past 11 seasons and have future games scheduled every year through 2025. But if Babcock and the Hokies decide to penalize the Pirates for choosing safety over football, maybe its time to think about “backing out” of the entire contract and finding someone else to play.