Before the NCAA announced its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, many fans held out hope the events would be postponed.
It turns out, the NCAA considered the possibility, as well as altering the format, before deciding such measures were not enough.
NCAA president Mark Emmert spoke to ESPN on Sunday, with his comments published to the site on Monday.
On Wednesday, the NCAA believed coronavirus was isolated in various areas around the country and decided to ban fans at the NCAA Tournament.
“We were hopeful at that point that we could still manage the events and protect the kids and a small number of family members and the coaches,” Emmert told ESPN.
The next day, March Madness was canceled. What changed?
“We were really hopeful that we could access testing enough so that we could test our student-athletes and coaches and make sure that we were good there,” Emmert said. “The communication started to come back that that may not be possible, that the testing protocols that were available were a little bit worse than we’d anticipated.”
An NBA player — Utah’s Rudy Gobert — testing positive for coronavirus on Wednesday night become “another important data point.”
By Thursday morning, Emmert said, “We realized that the possibility of an outbreak occurring among any one of our teams or staffs (was real).” The women’s tournament holds its first two rounds at campus sites, and many campuses were closing due to the pandemic.
The NCAA considered two alternatives: a delayed Tournament and an expedited one.
Postponement wasn’t appealing given what the NCAA was being told by its coronavirus expert panel.
“The best projections that our medical teams have seen is that May and June will be epicenter time, not diminished time, as this gets spread around the country,” Emmert said.
Regardless of coronavirus, many schools are set to close in the spring. Michigan, for example, finishes in late April. Emmert realized seniors might want to turn professional.
The NCAA Tournament selection committee “would have made decisions based on who’s playing today, and that wouldn’t have been who was playing when the tournament started,” Emmert said.
As for an abbreviated event, the NCAA considered a 16-team tournament played over the course of one weekend at one location. The NCAA initially figured it could test all the participating teams — players and coaches — for coronavirus.
“You’re talking about a very limited resource — these test kits,” Emmert said. “I’m not a public health official, but you’ve got this very scarce resource right now. Whether it should be scarce or not is another question, but it is scarce. And here you’re talking about otherwise really, really healthy people, and should you take that scarce resource and test otherwise [healthy] 19-year-olds? Some of the public health officials were saying that’s not a best use of this resource, and we were not going to have access to what we thought we needed.”
Emmert wouldn’t say the testing issue was the biggest reason for the cancellation, but it was clearly a major factor.
“It was the constantly changing growth curve on the epidemic, the changing policies at the state level that were constantly moving, the closure of campuses, the realization that we couldn’t test every athlete and their family and coaches in as timely of a manner as we had hoped. There were some logistical issues, too. It was a combination of all of those things.”
Emmert and his staff made the decision to cancel not just the basketball tournaments but all winter and spring championships. “It was just awful,” he said.
The men’s basketball NCAA Tournament — commonly called March Madness — is an enormous moneymaker for the NCAA. Emmert said he is working on plans to make up some of the lost revenue, some of which will be covered by insurance. The individual conferences, Emmert noted, have their own insurance policies.
Emmert also discussed pending decisions on an extra year of eligibility for seniors and recruiting bans. He sounded like many fans across the country who were devastated at the cancellation of an annual event that excites millions.
“College sports (are) such an integral and iconic part of American society,” Emmert said. “It’s just really gut-wrenching to imagine it stopping, even for a short period of time.”
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