Law enforcement agents gather for Public Safety Tabletop Exercise meeting ahead of 2020 NCAA Men's Basketball Championships in April at Georgia World Congress Center on Tuesday, February 18, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Thinking about March in the time of coronavirus 

The road to the Final Four will end here. As of today, that’s still the plan. As for tomorrow, who among us knows? 

We’re into March, which ordinarily means madness — in a good way. Conference tournaments begin this week. The NCAA tournament is set to begin March 17 in Dayton and end about midnight April 6 in our fair city. But that’s all tentative. A month from now, a week from now, this time tomorrow, the coronavirus might well have changed our best-laid plans. 

On Tuesday, Chicago State became the first major U.S.-based sports entity to cancel events because of COVID-19. A men’s basketball date at Seattle was scratched; so was a game that would have brought Seattle’s women’s team to Chicago. Washington state has, as of this writing, seen nine deaths due to the coronavirus. FYI, an NCAA men’s subregional is scheduled for Spokane, 280 miles east of Seattle where several of the deaths have been.

Also Tuesday, Stanford announced its coronavirus task force is advocating postponing or “adjusting” on-campus sporting events until April 15. The school said it plans to “limit the number of attendees at our competitions in order to allow for sufficient social distancing.” 

Social distancing essentially means staying as far from other humans as possible. It’s believed that Mercedes-Benz Stadium’s configuration for the Final Four will exceed 80,000. How do you steer clear of 79,999 others under one roof? 

For as much as we’ve learned about COVID-19, much remains unknown. How deadly is it? (The mortality rate has ticked up to 3.4 percent.) Can you have it and not realize it? (Apparently so.) Do masks help? (Depends who you ask.) If so, are there still any to buy? (No.) Is it possible to keep a social distance for weeks/months? (Good question.) Does the CDC, which sits seven miles from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, know what it’s doing? (Not my area of expertise.) Are we freaking out over nothing? 

As for that last part: This is clearly not nothing. It’s something we haven’t seen in a long, long time. As an antecedent, historians are pointing to the Spanish Flu of 1918. If you lived through that, you’re into triple digits. 

The NCAA offered this statement Tuesday: “We are planning to conduct our championships as planned; however, we are evaluating the COVID-19 situation daily and will make decisions accordingly.” 

That’s really all anyone can say, but this story keeps changing. It stopped being a Chinese thing a while back. It has hit Italy so hard that Serie A soccer games are being staged in empty stadiums. A cycling event in the United Arab Emirates was canceled and the riders quarantined. Speaking Tuesday, Japan’s Olympic minister hinted that the Tokyo Games, set to open in July, might be pushed back. Said Seiko Hashitomo: “The games can be postponed as long as they are held during the calendar year.” 

And now the coronavirus is here — in Seattle; in Manatee County, Fla., which isn’t far from where the Braves are training; even in Fulton County, Ga., which is HERE here. 

The National College Players Association issued this advisory Saturday: “Precautions should include cancelling all auxiliary events that put players in contact with crowds such as meet-and-greets and press events. ... In regard to the NCAA's March Madness tournament and other athletic events, there should also be a serious discussion about holding competitions without an audience present.”

Would that be enough? Teams would still have to travel, which would mean buses, airports, airplanes and hotels. As for playing in empty arenas … well, there’s no consensus there, either. As Dr. Patricia Daly, the chief of health services for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, told The Wall Street Journal: “During a pandemic, there’s really not a lot of evidence that canceling mass gatherings is of much benefit. If you think back to H1N1 (a pandemic that occurred in 2010), you probably don’t recall a lot of cancellations.” 

When it comes to big events, Bill Hancock has standing. He’s the executive director of the College Football Playoff. Before that, he headed the Bowl Championship Series. Before that, he ran the Final Four for the NCAA. (He did the 2002 convocation at the Georgia Dome.) Asked Wednesday what the NCAA might be thinking today, he said: “You hope you have game-planned for every eventuality. But an epidemic is something you don’t game-plan for like an active shooter, which I guess is a commentary on our times.” 

Any advice? “It’s the same whether you’re planning a sporting event, a big business meeting or a county fair – stay calm, communicate and tune out as much of the noise as is possible. You get as much accurate information as you can from the experts and go from there.” 

On Monday, NCAA chief medical officer Dr. Brian Hainline told Bloomberg News: “We haven’t arrived at the decision date. But while everything is fluid, we’re going to have to make some decisions and not have it wait until the last couple of days.” 

We around here have witnessed the vagaries of March. In 2008, a tornado struck downtown on Friday night as Georgia and Kentucky played in the SEC tournament. The Dome’s roof was torn. The final minutes of UGA-UK were played Saturday morning at Georgia Tech in what was then Alexander Memorial Coliseum. The semis were held there later Saturday, the final on Sunday. The Bulldogs, who’d gone 4-12 in the SEC regular season, claimed an improbable title on their rival’s home floor before a gathering of family and friends. Tickets sold for the Dome couldn’t be honored at Tech, given the Coliseum’s modest size. 

Thinking fast, the SEC and Tech — some Institute employees drove through the night from Charlotte, where the Yellow Jackets were playing in the ACC tournament, to ready the Coliseum for emergency use — saved the 2008 SEC tournament. Still, a pandemic is rather different from even the most extreme weather. If there’s a compelling reason to believe the nation’s health would be compromised by a basketball tournament, you shouldn’t play the basketball tournament. As complicated as the issue might seem, that conclusion is pretty simple 

Said Hancock: “The reality is that sports is not the highest priority.”

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.
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