Emmert’s announcement extended to all winter and spring sports championships, but the only reason he delayed as long as he did was the revenue that will be lost by not playing the men’s tournament.
To play 67 games in 13 empty arenas — and one empty 80,000-seat football stadium — around the country would have been eerie and would have cost lots and lots of money.
But the NCAA is fueled by the multibillion-dollar TV contract it has with CBS and Turner to televise the men’s tournament each spring. There will no doubt be negotiations between those networks and the NCAA, and there will be insurance implications, but the bottom line is the bottom line: The NCAA is going to lose all or most of the roughly $860 million it was to be paid for this year’s tournament.
Even though there were conference tournaments going on until early Thursday afternoon, when the last holdout — the Big East — finally pulled the plug, it became apparent with each passing hour that there was no way to get 68 teams to 14 sites over the next three weeks and ask them to compete, even with only a few hundred people in the building.
The real victims in this are the players. The schools will survive financially, fans will live for a year without filling out brackets, and the NCAA’s “corporate champions” will find a place to spend their money.
But for the athletes, many of whom will never play college basketball again, this is beyond sad.
“We should all feel for the players first, foremost and perhaps only,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said shortly after Thursday’s announcement. “They’re the reason the tournament exists. They’re the reason we coach and compete. They’re the reason — period.
“We’re all at war with this virus. It’s not fair to people quarantined on ships, people who are going to lose income because of all that’s happening, and it’s not fair to the players. They’re not alone, but they’re certainly the victims of what’s happened to the tournament.”
Krzyzewski has coached in 35 NCAA tournaments. Hartford Coach John Gallagher has coached in none but firmly believed his team was going to go to Vermont on Saturday and win the America East’ automatic bid.
“I just had to tell my 8-year-old daughter that our season’s over,” he said. “She burst into tears and said, ‘But, Daddy, we didn’t lose.’ How do I explain this to an 8-year-old?
“I told my players when we got word we weren’t playing that I will always think of them as my first championship team. No rings, no trophy, but they’re champions to me. . . . They’d gotten us to within 40 minutes of the dream. Two days ago, we had the biggest road win [at Stony Brook in the conference tournament semifinals] in school history and in my career. And now, it’s over. I told the players what my Irish grandfather used to tell me: ‘Sometimes, life ain’t fair.’ I’m just sorry they had to get a lesson in that this way because it ain’t fair.”
Many coaches had begun pushing early Thursday for a postponement of the tournament, perhaps for a month or even six weeks. But even if the pandemic is somehow brought under control in that time, the logistics of rescheduling arena rentals and hotel blocks made that pretty much impossible.
The conference that looked the worst Thursday was the Big East, which somehow allowed the Creighton-St. John’s game to begin at Madison Square Garden while everyone else was reaching the decision not to play. Commissioner Val Ackerman’s explanation as to why the game was allowed to start but then was called off at halftime made as much sense as starting the game did — in other words, no sense at all.
There would have been 68 teams playing next week, beginning Tuesday in Dayton. That’s more than 800 players. For most, the NCAA tournament is the culmination of their basketball careers. A handful will play in the NBA; perhaps a couple will become major stars. Most will look back on their college careers as the pinnacle.
There were to have been 32 teams in the NIT and another 42 in the pay-for-play tournaments (the College Basketball Invitational and the CollegeInsider.com tournament). That’s roughly another 900 players. And that doesn’t include the athletes in Division II and Division III, who had already started their tournaments, or any of the women’s players.
For many, their college careers are over. Although Friday, an NCAA committee granted another year of eligibility to thousands of college athletes whose seasons were abruptly cut short by concerns about the pandemic. How that plays out remains to be seen. Some will get another chance next year; many, especially on the mid-major and lower-tier teams, will graduate, their last games in the past even though, as Gallagher’s daughter pointed out, they didn’t lose.
There is no doubting that the NCAA had to make this decision given everything going on in the world outside the bubble of college athletics.
There will, no doubt, be another tournament next year. The bracketologists will warble; the talking heads will babble; the committee will make mistakes and excuses; brackets will be filled out; and arenas will be filled with fans ardently hoping to see their teams win.
All of which is good. But the players who worked so hard for so many months to get to this point can never get this tournament back.
As Krzyzewski pointed out, there are lots of people suffering worse fates than basketball players not getting to play basketball games. But this is still sad for all of those players.
“We all take getting the chance to compete for granted,” Gallagher said. “After this, we’ll never take it for granted again.
“It hurts to lose. This hurts a lot more.”
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.