We’re learning more on an hourly basis, but there’s one we should know already. At a time such as this — we stipulate there has been no time in a hundred years quite like this — we don’t need to be devoting resources to the staging of sporting events.
I came here to cover a tournament that spans five days. The SEC couldn’t get through the first session of Day 1 without realizing how awful it would look for its games to be played before actual fans when the NCAA had announced hours earlier that the whole Big Dance would be conducted behind closed doors. So the SEC said the rest of its event would be staged sans fans. So did every other major conference.
Then we all went back to our hotels and tried to digest the day that just was — a day unlike any in the history of American sports. Then, after a few hours’ sleep, some of us awoke and asked the next question: If the NBA has decided to stop playing for health reasons, could colleges in good conscience ask student-athletes, who aren’t paid professionals, to keep going?
By 12:25 p.m. Thursday, the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, the Atlantic 10 and the American Athletic Conference had also canceled. Somehow the Big East decided to play its afternoon games, but that’s surely a temporary thing. (Also a really dumb thing.) Nobody wants to be the one conference who says, “Eh, the coronavirus isn’t that big a deal” — and then face the scorn, not to mention the litigation, that would follow should any participant test positive. This is one thing we can’t get wrong. Quote me on this: Better safe than sorry.
I could be wrong — that’s happened a time or two — but I can’t imagine the NCAA will go much longer without announcing its tournament has been canceled, or at least postponed. Another thought that occurred overnight: CBS and TBS are still set to air 12 days of college basketball, all of them to be played before intimate gatherings of family and friends. Forget public health for a second. From a TV perspective, how awful would that look and sound? Entire sections of empty seats. Arenas so quiet you could hear the sneakers squeaking. And would bands be allowed? Would cheerleaders and dance teams?
After Georgia beat Ole Miss in the first of this SEC tournament’s two completed games, coach Tom Crean and players Rayshuan Hammonds and Jordan Harris took the postgame dais. They were asked about the conference’s decision to bar fans, which had just been announced. “First we’ve heard of it,” Crean said. A bit later, he said, “We’ll just treat (the never-to-be-played Round 2 against Florida) the way we would a controlled scrimmage.”
Even been to a controlled scrimmage? It’s essentially a spirited practice. Who’d want to play three weeks’ worth of those, even with the prospect of being handed a trophy at the end? What’s the point of being handed a trophy if almost nobody’s there to see it?
Is canceling the NCAA tournament fair to the players who’d invested so much in this season? No, but how fair would it be if they were made to keep playing and wound up in quarantine, as happened with the NBA’s Utah Jazz on Wednesday night? We say again: Nobody knows where COVID-19 is headed. The only thing that has seemed to slow it is by doing as China did, which was essentially to shut down half of a massive nation. (Italy has shut down its entire nation.)
Shutting down doesn’t mean continuing with regularly scheduled tournaments. It defies belief that MLB allowed exhibition games to continue, but there’s a reason MLB is the stupidest of all sports. Finally, Thursday afternoon MLB stopped playing and delayed Opening Day two weeks. MLS has stopped playing. The NHL too. Apologies for requoting my physician friend – he’s Dr. Stan Dysart, prince of Marietta – but here it is: “This country needs to shut down for the next two months.”
Once more, with feeling: WE CANNOT GET THIS WRONG. As Tennessee coach Rick Barnes told the Tennessean after the SEC canceled itself: “If we would have gone out to play today, we would really be hoping we were lucky that nothing would happen.” That’s no way to conduct business. That’s no way to safeguard those in your care. Against the coronavirus, crossed fingers aren’t a viable stratagem.
We now await the NCAA’s next move, which seems inevitable. We have far bigger concerns right now. And what kind of Big Dance would it be if pep bands don’t get to play?
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