Next week, about 1800 college basketball players and a few hundred more coaches will fly in from college campuses around the country and congregate at multiple NCAA tournament sites.
Given the spread of COVID-19 around the United States and the uncertainty of how many people actually have it due to lack of testing, it's conceivable that someone participating in a tournament game will be carrying the virus. Let’s say that hypothetical person then tests positive a week later, at which point they’ve already come into close contact with two other teams who are in the Sweet 16.
Given that members of Congress are going into quarantine because they were in the same room with someone who later tested positive for COVID-19, it’s a question worth asking. What would you do with more than 20 basketball players and coaches who could potentially have been exposed to it but are still playing for a national championship?
As you grapple with that scenario — admittedly a hypothetical, but not one that is particularly far-fetched right now — it leads to an inevitable question.
Is it irresponsible to play the NCAA men's and women's tournaments this year?
The tone of the debate around what to do with college basketball’s showcase event has undeniably changed as of Tuesday.
The Ivy League cancelled its conference tournament. The governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, put out a statement “asking for no events with spectators other than the athletes, parents, and others essential to the game,” which is significant since the First Four is in Dayton next Tuesday and Wednesday. The Mid-American and Big West conferences closed their tournaments to spectators.
The NCAA, after releasing a statement putting the onus on “schools and conferences” to determine what they should do with their conference championships, released another a few hours later with an entirely different tone.
“The NCAA continues to assess how COVID-19 impacts the conduct of our tournaments and events. We are consulting with public health officials and our COVID-19 advisory panel, who are leading experts in epidemiology and public health, and will make decisions in the coming days.”
That suggests status quo is changing. The only question is to what degree.
Here’s the problem with the COVID-19 situation. We don’t know how many people have it or are going to get it, but we know it is spreading in the U.S. While the vast majority of people who get it will recover or suffer only mild symptoms, they can easily spread it to vulnerable groups who are more at-risk of serious illness or death.
For that reason, businesses are restricting employees from travel. Schools in some communities that have had cases are sending kids home, and colleges are taking their classes online. This isn’t about panic. Given the lack of treatment or vaccine, the only best answer doctors have given us for slowing this thing down is fewer person-to-person interactions, especially in places where we know there are cases.
Day by day, it is clear this is how every sector of society is going to operate in the short term. It is what we’re dealing with right now as a country. The idea that sports would somehow be an exception to that is arrogant at minimum and dangerous at worst.
The NCAA tournament is an event where thousands of college students from more than 100 schools — band members, cheerleaders, athletes — and tens of thousands of fans leave their towns and hop around the country to watch games in arenas where fans are elbow-to-elbow before returning home and interacting with their communities.
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Given what we know, and especially what we don’t, that setup becomes increasingly risky, selfish and counterproductive to a society that may only be beginning to come to terms with the bigger picture. Again, depending on who you are, the problem with COVID-19 isn’t necessarily that you might get it, it’s who might get it from you.
But even if the NCAA decides to play games without fans, is that enough of a line being drawn? How risky is it really to put these amateur college athletes from various parts of the country on the court to play against one another without testing every single participant? Given the testing capacity right now, is that even going to be possible by Thursday?
And, God forbid, what happens if a player or coach who was on the court with a bunch of other players and coaches tests positive? In a tournament that takes place over three consecutive weeks, is that really a roll of the dice the NCAA wants to take?
These are real questions the NCAA needs to ask itself before going forward with its tournaments next week. Look, sports are very important and canceling the NCAA tournaments is a nightmare scenario. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. It would be awful to make that call.
But what’s the balance between overreacting and under-reacting? We might not be able to know that answer for certain before it’s too late.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter.