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The NCAA Had No Choice but to Cancel March Madness

A day after announcing that the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments would be played in empty stadiums, the NCAA canceled the events entirely. It’s a costly decision, but a necessary one.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There will be no March Madness this year. The ball will not be tipped; there will be no shining moments; there is not even a dance for Cinderella to attend. The NCAA canceled all remaining winter and spring championships on Thursday in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which means that for the first time since 1938, there will be no NCAA basketball tournaments.

On Wednesday, the NCAA announced that March Madness would be held in empty stadiums, hoping to hang on to its $857 million television contract while doing its part to prevent large public gatherings. But hours after that announcement, a game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder was called off—Jazz center Rudy Gobert was diagnosed with COVID-19, and Thursday morning, it was reported that his teammate Donovan Mitchell was as well. That made it clear that fans aren’t the only people at risk from the coronavirus—athletes are too. By Wednesday night, the NBA had suspended its season; Thursday, the NHL and MLS followed suit, and MLB canceled spring training and postponed the start of its season. By Thursday afternoon, every Division I league that had yet to hold its conference basketball tournament canceled their events.

The last holdout was the NCAA—and with the loss of nearly $900 million looming, it seemed like it might move forward and try to play anyway. (Remember: The NCAA doesn’t make money from regular-season events or football. March Madness represents 75 percent of its annual revenue.) For a while, it seemed possible that the NCAA might simply postpone its tournament—there was an unofficial proposal to announce a 68-team field and hold the tournament at a later date. After all, the pro leagues didn’t cancel their seasons—they just suspended them and said they’d look into it later. But Thursday afternoon, the NCAA announced its decision: The tourney was off, with no potential to reschedule. Many are upset with that choice:

It’s possible the NCAA’s members forced the association’s hand. The ACC released a statement before the cancellation announcing that it would withhold all of its teams from competitions indefinitely. It’s hard to imagine an NCAA basketball tournament without the ACC, which is home to Duke. And if the ACC was going to sit out, perhaps other conferences would have followed suit.

I do wonder whether the tournament could have been pushed back, but what’s clear is that it should not have been held as scheduled. Unlike the NBA, there have been no reported cases of a college basketball player being diagnosed, but an official who refereed one of the conference tournaments was. It seems likely that if we were to test every player on every team in the running to play in the NCAA tournament, someone would test positive.

The coronavirus spreads rapidly, and the disease it causes is deadly. We can’t totally prevent its spread, but we can delay it by canceling major events, and that delay could buy time for our health system as it responds to the public health crisis. We all bear a responsibility to take part in social distancing to mitigate the spread of the disease—and this was the NCAA’s part.

While the cancellation of the tournament is the right choice, I must be frank: It absolutely sucks. The NCAA tournament is my favorite sporting event, and it is gone—but as fans, our bummer means nothing compared to the players who dreamed of a moment that will never come. Every senior’s career just ended, without getting the chance to end it on their own terms. On the men’s side, I was looking forward to a potential championship for mid-majors like Dayton and San Diego State, two teams having historic seasons while many of the sport’s powerhouses lagged. On the women’s side, Oregon superstar Sabrina Ionescu came back to college to win a national championship. All these shots at glory have fizzled, like buzzer-beaters that came a second late.

The ripple effects of this decision will be felt throughout college athletics. The NCAA distributes most of the hundreds of millions of dollars it receives in broadcast revenue from the tournament to the colleges that make up the NCAA. That money is used to subsidize many athletic programs that don’t draw tens of millions of viewers. How will schools adapt without that financial windfall? Hopefully, they will choose to dig deeper into their pockets rather than making cuts. I rip the NCAA constantly for valuing cash over everything, but this time, the association made the tough choice to give up cash in the name of doing the right thing.

Yes, this is disappointing, but it is not a tragedy. Tragedies are lives lost to a disease we haven’t figured out how to stop from spreading. Because the NCAA chose to act, calling off mass gatherings across the country and preventing athletes, coaches, band members, fans, media members, and the like from boarding planes, the virus will spread slower, and lives will be saved.

I hope that when the dust clears, the damage from COVID-19 is much lower than we are currently expecting, and disappointed fans will rise up to say that this historic decision was an overreaction. Maybe they’ll be right—or maybe it will only look like an overreaction because drastic preventive measures turned out to be successful.