The reviled NCAA just performed a public service

In this April 3, 2015, file photo, basketballs sit in a rack during Michigan State practice at the Final Four in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

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In this April 3, 2015, file photo, basketballs sit in a rack during Michigan State practice at the Final Four in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

I’m writing this from a Shoney’s in Calhoun, en route home from an SEC tournament that lasted one session. Ten minutes ago, the NCAA canceled its tournament, and not just the March Madness part – every tournament, men’s and women’s, remaining on the winter and spring calendar. No gymnastics. No golf. No baseball. Nothing.

The cancellation of the Big Dance became inevitable after the NBA suspended its season Wednesday night and all conferences aborted their tournaments. (The Big East managed to play half of a game before seeing the light. For the record, St. John's led Creighton 38-35.) The more you thought about it, the more you wondered: If COVID-19 was so dire as to force the NCAA to bar fans from clustering, why wasn't it dire enough to keep players from sharing a plane, a bus, a 94-foot court?

But now it’s done. There’ll be no Final Four at any Atlanta arena. It’s disappointing, yes. In no way, however, is it a mistake. This was the prudent course, really the only course. And it could well be that, a month or two from now, we could be giving thanks to the NCAA for saving a lot of lives.

» More AJC coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

As recently as this week, many Americans weren’t sure what to make of COVID-19. Our nation’s president tweeted that it isn’t as deadly as the flu. (Not trying to take a political side here; just pointing out a fact.) That in mind, sports – the NCAA and the NBA primarily, though the others, even benighted MLB, have fallen in line – just did us a favor. By canceling events we’ve come to view as American birthrights, they’ve grabbed us by the lapels and screamed, albeit from a social distance, in our faces: “This is SERIOUS! This can KILL you!”

A school system shutting down affects the children and the parents of a small area. The NCAA telling us that its billion-dollar tournament isn’t worth playing resonates with most everybody. In announcing the SEC’s decision to cancel in Nashville earlier Thursday, commissioner Greg Sankey told reporters that the conferences had been given “stark information” by the NCAA.

That sounded scary. Good. Right now, we all should be scared.

Sports can seem such silly things. Someone throws a ball, or hits it, or shoots it through a hoop. Not exactly rocket science. But lots of us like sports enough that we know all the names and the nicknames and the batting averages and the winning percentages, and sometimes sports touch us in a way that nothing else can. March Madness is a fixture on the sporting calendar because it gives us improbable winners from schools you couldn’t locate without Google, and at its end it gives us that One Shining Moment.

There will be no CBS/Turner-commissioned highlights set to song this spring, but college basketball just gave us a shining moment of sorts. Coronavirus deniers are surely a much smaller group today than when the week began. The cancellation of our games hits us in a way that no politician of either party ever could. COVID-19 is clearly worse than was thought, and the only way China brought it under some semblance of control was to cordon off much of a massive nation. We need to do some cordoning. (Or “self-isolating.”) We need to stop gathering en masse. We need to stick close to home. We don’t need to be congregating to watch a ballgame.

I’m 64. I’ve known nothing like this in my lifetime, which has lasted long enough – as my darling younger daughter has reminded me – to put me in the high-risk category for coronavirus. My 24 hours in Nashville were like no work experience in 42 years of doing this for a living. And now I’m sitting in a Shoney’s in Calhoun and, despite having just eaten a largish ham sandwich, feeling drained.

This is a bad time for our country. We need to focus on grim reality before it gets grimmer still. This thing won’t go away just because we heard somebody say it’s not all that bad. It’s bad enough that the NCAA just canceled the biggest annual event short of the Super Bowl. That should get everyone’s attention.

There’ll be no brackets this spring, no Bradley’s Bracket Fiasco, either. Things we took for granted were just taken away. Time now to concentrate on important stuff, like surviving. Everyone hates the NCAA on general principles, but that object of ongoing scorn has performed a great public service.