The NCAA plans to play in empty arenas. Should it just cancel?

The scene at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, with few spectators on hand one hour before Georgia and Ole Miss were to tip off to begin the 2020 SEC men's basketball tournament.
The scene at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, with few spectators on hand one hour before Georgia and Ole Miss were to tip off to begin the 2020 SEC men's basketball tournament.

To call it the most incredible day in the annals of American sports is an understatement. It was among the more dizzying days in the history of this nation, which has been around a while longer than March Madness. As of 4:30 p.m. EDT Wednesday, business seemed to be proceeding as usual, or at least as usual as is possible in this time of COVID-19.

Then the NCAA announced its famous tournament would be played behind closed doors. 

Then every major conference announced its tournaments, some already underway, would finish without fans in arenas.

Then the NBA suspended its season after Rudy Gobert, among the league's best players, tested positive for the coronavirus.

Asked his reaction to the NCAA’s decision, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Wednesday night: “Surprise. Shock. A few other words. Disappointment.”

Said Georgia coach Tom Crean, whose Bulldogs beat Ole Miss 81-63 here in the tournament's opening game, which proved to be the next-to-last game the paying public can attend: "It really doesn't matter how disappointed you would be for people being able to see it and to travel. This is … I cannot begin to describe what's going on in our world right now with this coronavirus. There's a lot of people that are making decisions who can, and that's what you have to do. You have to trust the people who have the knowledge and are getting all the information."

Then: “There’s so much information we have to try and decipher as people out here in the public, and it’s not even close to what people behind closed doors have got to be able to determine. There’s no way that you can do anything but trust the judgment of those people – participate the way they want you to participate, be thankful that you have a chance and continue to trust that they know what’s best.”

In the span of five hours, almost every major form of U.S. basketball either shuttered its games or stopped playing. Think about that. Think how fast COVID-19 has gone from curiosity to contagion. Heck, Tom Hanks just announced he has it. Even Forrest freakin’ Gump couldn’t outrun this thing.

Crean: “In the world right now, this is the new normal.”

Sankey: “This is the best information we have now.  ... This is a fluid situation.”

All of which makes us wonder if the NCAA tournament -- still set to end in Atlanta, though maybe not at Mercedes-Benz Stadium -- will happen at all. We’re still three days from Selection Sunday, five days from tip-off in the First Four. There’s plenty of a time for a college player or coach or referee to test positive, and then where do you go? It’d be tough to play a first-round game if your entire roster is in quarantine.

To borrow Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity’s description, these are “uncharted waters.” They’re also waters that become more roiled with every day. The World Health Organization announced Wednesday afternoon that this is now a pandemic. Sankey and the conference ADs were having their regularly scheduled meeting when they heard. The room, he said, “got quiet.”

» More AJC coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Then Ohio governor Mike DeWine ordered that no large gathering could be held in his state, which forced the NCAA’s hand. Either it moved the First Four out of Dayton and a subregional out of Cleveland or it barred fans from watching. As you heard it, the NCAA’s decision seemed earth-shattering. A few hours later, a major sports league announced it was halting its season. What would have been unthinkable even a week ago was now, per Crean, the new normal.

Only there’s nothing normal about it, and nothing says that what’s scheduled to happen next will in fact happen. The more I think about it – and I’ve thought about little else these past few days – the more I doubt the Big Dance will be played. No matter how hard the NCAA tries to protect its athletes and coaches, there will still be people in motion – buses, planes, airports, hotels – at a time when staying home and bingeing Netflix seems the safest course.

Sankey again: “I understand the disappointment for everyone, but we also have a reality around public health.”

The NCAA can lock its doors and play before friends and family and TV cameras, but COVID-19 has proved nothing if not intrusive. How exactly did Rudy Gobert get it? How did Tom Hanks?

A doctor friend told me last night: “This country needs to shut down for the next two months.” Not so long ago, the notion would have been LOL funny. Nobody’s laughing now. This is serious stuff. This is officially a pandemic. China got a grip only after it cordoned off much of itself. The entirety of Italy is under quarantine. Every U.S. company is telling employees not to travel outside the States. Many major operations are ordering their people not to come to work.

As someone who likes basketball, I’d like to see the NCAA crown a champion. As a U.S. citizen, I’m not sure that’s the best use of resources right now. Our new normal is frightful. Just getting from here to Easter figures to be enough of a slog. At such a time, is one shining moment even possible?

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