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The NCAA decided March Madness will be played in empty gyms, that’s the right call

A virus isn’t something you can bludgeon with working groups and meetings. The NCAA needs to act

No Fans At Big West Tournament Due To Coronavirus Photo by Scott Varley/MediaNews Group/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images

Update-3/11-4:40 ET: The NCAA listened, and will be playing the tournament in empty gyms. Good for them! This is the right move.

The NCAA isn’t used to doing anything quickly.

From cost of attendance, to name, image and likeness rights, to player safety, NCAA tends to act only when the legal system requires it. Otherwise, when faced with a potentially difficult decision, their impulse has been to delay, to debate, and try to draw out discussions in yet another Blue Ribbon Working Group.

You can use that trick indefinitely on, for instance, a pesky reporter. But now, the NCAA faces a crisis they can’t defeat by talking it to death: coronavirus.

They need to do something to address the public health risk posed by Covid-19. At the very least, that something should be playing the NCAA tournament behind closed doors, without big crowds.

Public health experts have made it clear they think this is the best move.

Don’t just make my word for it. I have a political science degree, which means I’m not any good at actual science. But plenty of actual scientists have said that holding any kind of large gathering right now is a bad idea.

Here’s Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, saying NBA games, as an example, should be played without crowds:

And in a story in Vice, four different public health experts, at NCAA member institutions like Michigan, Florida and Yale, all gave similar advice :

“I would encourage them to cancel this event,” said Xi Chen, a professor of public health, global health, and economics at Yale University. “The droplets can spread from person to person without touching, and people within a close distance are at high risk.

“This is very big scale. [...] And this is also an event that people may travel from. This makes the virus spread. The transmission of the virus is very much determined by the mobility of the population. We should remove such events and reduce traveling.”

Some professional sports team, like the Columbus Blue Jackets and Cleveland Cavaliers, have suggested the ventilation systems at their arenas would help minimize risk of transmission, but a leading expert at Ohio State disagrees:

Doctors and scientists aren’t the only ones concerned. Local governments have also encouraged caution.

San Fransisco is banning crowds of over 1,000. Santa Clara County enacted a similar ban. Parts of Washington State have done so too. Washington D.C. may do the same. Mike DeWine, the governor of Ohio, recommended that indoor sporting events be closed to spectators. By the time you read this post, it’s entirely possible other local officials will push for similar changes.

Plus, if NCAA member institutions think going to class is too dangerous, why are we playing basketball?

As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 80 schools, dozens of them DI institutions, have taken action, doing everything from extending spring break, to making all instruction online, to in some cases, even closing the school and asking students to move off campus.

If, as the NCAA loves to argue both in court and in public, college basketball players are more student than athlete, and their schools think their participation in in-person lectures is too dangerous to their health or the health of their community, how is playing in front of 15,000 people not dangerous? How is anybody supposed to take any of the organization’s concerns about student welfare seriously, when they refuse to act in concert with the academic side of their institutions?

Other organizations have already decided that yes, playing basketball in front of large crowds is too dangerous.

The MAC and Big West announced they’ll play their conference tournaments without any fans. The Ivy League went a step further, and canceled their whole dang tournament. So did the CBI, a postseason basketball tournament played on campus sites.

If it’s too dangerous for a crowd to assemble to watch Kent State battle Ball State, surely it would be too dangerous for a much larger crowd to gather to watch other basketball teams, right?

There’s even reason to think playing these games behind closed doors won’t even cost that much money

March Madness is big business for the NCAA, no doubt about it. But most of that money comes from the tournament’s broadcast rights, not from the revenue from ticket sales, hot dogs and cokes. If you’re still showing the games on TV, you should get those huge TV checks. And the folks at Turner, who own the rights, don’t seem to be worried about their bottom line. If anything, the tournament might get even better ratings! Via Bloomberg:

Executives for CBS Sports and WarnerMedia’s Turner Sports, which recently signed an $8.8 billion extension of their tournament media rights, said any decision rests with the NCAA. Should games happen without fans, viewership would likely be unaffected, according to Jeff Zucker, chairman of AT&T Inc.’s WarnerMedia News and Sports.

“That really is not something we’re really concerned about,” Zucker said on a conference call with reporters. “If it were to come to such a point, you would probably be in a situation where much of the country would be looking to watch the games, would be home, would be looking for that outlet and that relief.

Plus, unlike some other major events that had to be canceled or postponed, the NCAA reportedly has an insurance policy that would help cover any lost revenue. Per the Bloomberg story linked above:

Donald Remy, the NCAA’s chief operating officer, said last week that the organization had business interruption insurance that it believed would cover some potential losses resulting from the outbreak.

It seems like a safe assumption that the NCAA won’t want to make any drastic changes to the tournament format because of money, but this event sounds like exactly the reason you pay large insurance premiums in the first place! It’s not like the first-round tournament games typically sell out anyway, and crowds, even if they’re allowed, would certainly be smaller than they would be in a typical year, since consumers are aware of the health risks.

Is it possible the NCAA or member institutions could lose some money by not selling any tickets? Yes. Is that a good enough reason to postpone action? No.

There’s no reason to wait for politicians or anybody else to make the decision for them. The NCAA should act now.

The NCAA is currently trying to convince members of Congress to help them preserve as much of the current amateurism model as possible, in the face of growing legal and legislative changes. That’s going to be an uphill battle under the best of circumstances, but any chance of success hinges on the organization’s ability to convince the public that they have the best interests of athletes at heart, and that the organization doesn’t exist solely as a means to generate profit.

That’s going to be an impossible argument if the NCAA refuses to heed the advice of not just federal public health experts, but the experts on the campuses of member institutions.

I’m not a doctor. But a whole bunch of doctors are getting in front of microphones right now, telling anybody who will listen that our country faces a significant public health risk, and that avoiding large crowds is an important way to protect not just ourselves, but the more vulnerable in our society.

That’s not a threat you can defeat with a working group and occasional press releases stating you’re thinking about the problem. You deal with it by addressing the problem.

It’s time for the NCAA to do just that, and announce, at the very least, that they’ll play the tournament behind closed doors.