It barely seems like March without the NCAA tournament. The coronavirus has stopped all sports in their tracks for the time being, but there’s a particular emptiness without the frenzied excitement of the tourney.
NCAA president Mark Emmert held out hope for a tournament for as long as he could. In an interview with ESPN, Emmert revealed what development finally led to the cancellation of March Madness this past Thursday, and all the contributing factors that went into the decision.
Mark Emmert: ‘This is real’
In response to the coronavirus, the NCAA announced last Wednesday that the entire tournament would be held without fans. Emmert told ESPN that he and the board of governors were confident in that plan and felt that it was the right move in light of the unfolding situation.
“We [were] completely convinced at 4 p.m. on Wednesday that we could conduct the championships without fans by controlling the sites effectively,” Emmert said. “We thought we could control the perimeters and control the environment, and, as best as possible, travel, because it's mostly charter travel and buses one way or another. We felt really confident about it. We were feeling really, really good.”
That feeling didn’t last long. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus on Wednesday night, and the NBA suspended its season almost immediately after. When Emmert heard about that, he fully understood the seriousness of the situation.
“It was like, ‘Yeah, this is real,’” Emmert told ESPN.
Dan Gavitt, the NCAA’s VP for men’s basketball, pinpointed Gobert’s diagnosis as the moment everything changed.
“That was really, in my opinion, a seminal moment in everybody's mindset about how impractical and possibly not responsible it would be at that point to go forward with trying to hold these national championships.”
Lack of tests influenced decision
Gobert’s positive test apparently drove the NCAA’s decision to cancel the tournament, but it wasn’t the only factor. The lack of COVID-19 tests is a major issue nationwide, and it also influenced the decision by the board of governors.
Emmert told ESPN that the NCAA had originally wanted to test all participating student-athletes and coaches to make sure none of them were infected with the coronavirus. While the availability of tests immediately became an issue, Emmert said he was also facing an ethical dilemma.
“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. That was just one data point.”
Even if they could get their hands on enough tests for every athlete and coach, using those tests on healthy young men is ethically questionable. Without testing, there was no way the NCAA could guarantee that they wouldn’t be spreading the coronavirus, even at games with no fans. Canceling was the only responsible decision.
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