It could never have worked. Entire teams would have forfeited because they were in quarantine. That’s not the kind of bracket buster anyone needs or wants to see.
I love the NCAA tournament, the ritualism and month-long unconscious obsession, better than almost any event. My mind goes blank in March, and I reawaken in April to find I missed the tulips. But this year it would have been an unjustifiable indulgence — and a potentially lethal one.
It was typical of the NCAA to foot-drag and hem over the official announcement. Presumably the subcommittee of the subcommittee had to meet with the standing committee of the subcommittee to discuss the fiscal impact. Not until hours after Duke and Kansas announced they had no intention of playing a postseason in the midst of a pandemic did the NCAA Board of Governors announce that it was canceling the championships for all winter and spring sports.
This was an unavoidable decision, as well as a common sense one. An official who worked the Colonial Athletic Association tournament tested positive for the virus. There would have been others. Count on it.
The time it took the NCAA to arrive at the inescapable conclusion — trailing behind the NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball as it sought half measures that might allow the tournament to be held — was long enough to reinforce the worst perceptions of the organization again, the deep suspicion that the well-being of athletes comes last, not first.
The NCAA has a different predicament than any pro sports league because it insists on the fallacy of amateurism, and that fallacy was exposed like never before by the coronavirus. Every other college student in the country is being told by university authorities to stay away from classrooms and lecture halls, not to congregate, in the name of containment and the welfare of all. Dorms are shut down, classes suspended or moved online.
Yet somehow the NCAA actually contemplated holding a tournament, as if college ballplayers had a special dispensation of immunity. Into Thursday morning, they allowed players to sweat and breathe on each other on the court, to practice and congregate in humid locker rooms and on buses, continuing to prepare for the postseason, to play for berths and seedings. The disingenuous excuse offered by NCAA President Mark Emmert for not canceling was that the tournament was “the experience of a lifetime.”
But the real dispensation, the inoculation, was called a billion-dollar TV contract.
The coronavirus highlighted as nothing else could that college athletes assume all the risk while everyone else gets paid. Even the half measure contemplated by the NCAA was incredibly risky. Think about it. Sixty-eight teams traveling to nine host sites next week. Four regional venues — one of them New York, which is in the middle of a major, growing outbreak. CBS had to evacuate its broadcast center in Manhattan on Wednesday after two employees on different floors tested positive for the coronavirus. Four teams were scheduled to come to Manhattan and stay in hotels and play ball in Madison Square Garden starting March 27. In front of CBS crews and techs.
There really was no other option but to cancel. Even with just “essential staff and limited family,” which is what the NCAA was proposing, think of the potential for virus spreading.
Some will scream that it was premature or needless. It’s the habit of people in sports to think that they are invincible and insulated from the usual problems of the world. But the virus is cutting a wide swath through that arrogance. Several NBA teams were advised to self-quarantine because they had direct or indirect contact with the Utah Jazz within the past 10 days, all because Rudy Gobert thought he was immune.
Understand this about the coronavirus: It’s not only hugely contagious and 10 times more dangerous than the flu. It has a stunning ability to inflict lasting lung damage. Which means it has the potential to compromise a star college player’s future earning ability should he contract a bad case of it while playing for nothing except Emmert’s experience of a lifetime.
Ask yourself what would happen if we reversed the circumstances and asked the NCAA jellynecks to sweat free, while the players got paid to watch.
Imagine it. Let’s say Kansas’s Devon Dotson got to sit in a padded chair and push paper for his cut of $1 billion, while he suggested that Emmert and ACC Commissioner John Swofford should jiggle up and down the court, swapping potentially viral fluids and risking their health and futures?
How many jellynecks would agree to that?
The only reason the NCAA hesitated as long as it did was the financial stakes. And those were certainly worth grave consideration: all kinds of parties will suffer from the cancellations, from stadium workers to local tavern owners to nonrevenue athletes. But irrational sums shouldn’t lead to irrational decisions. Duke and Kansas officials showed real leadership in making their unilateral moves, and it’s the sort that you wish the NCAA had more of. A cancellation is not the worst outcome here — the worst outcome is a major outbreak that sickens and perhaps kills.
The American sports public can do with a thoughtful pause. And in the quiet interim, it should contemplate just what a separate and extra-burdened class the NCAA has made of the college ballplayers we watch so avidly and so mindlessly.