Wojo: As coronavirus threat rises, NCAA, NBA, rest of sports world forced to react

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

In a perilous new world, nothing or no one is immune. This has been apparent for a while, but it was just hammered home in a staggering way.

As the coronavirus outbreak officially reached the pandemic stage Wednesday, the sports world incurred the latest major blows. The NCAA announced its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments would go on as scheduled starting next week, but without fans in the stands. Teams will compete in largely empty arenas, surrounded only by “essential staff and limited family attendance.”

Taylor Michel, director of operations of the Disinfecting Technologies Group, prepares to disinfect the arena following an NCAA Division III men’s basketball game at Goldfarb Gymnasium at Johns Hopkins University last Friday in Baltimore, Md. On Wednesday the NCAA announced the Division I tournament would be closed to fans.

The situation is escalating at such a startling pace, it's impossible to tell which sports will still be playing in the near future. The NBA announced Wednesday night it was suspending its season after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for the coronavirus. There was no word on when the games would resume. This is the incredible uncertainty the world faces, and sports can't avoid, not even the idyllic March Madness.

It was the right thing to do, a growing inevitability, and yet the news strikes an unnerving chord. The NCAA Tournament is the most inclusive sporting event in America, bringing together teams and fans of all backgrounds, from all corners, crammed into a three-week tussle that’s alternately riveting and heartbreaking. That’s what makes it great, and also what made it vulnerable.

In a brief statement after a day of increasingly ominous warnings from health organizations, NCAA president Mark Emmert wrote: “While I understand how disappointing this is for all fans of our sports, my decision is based on the current understanding of how COVID-19 is progressing in the United States.”

As the crisis grows, tough decisions must be made before tougher consequences occur. What seemed like panic a couple weeks ago is looking far more prudent. Of course, barring fans from basketball games pales in comparison to the issues of testing and quarantining, but there’s a symbolic point here.

Atmospheric disturbance

It may be crushing for fans, but also illuminating. If an event this cherished, this expensive and expansive, can be limited, pretty much anything can be limited. Everything is under consideration now, inside and outside sports. Professional leagues — NBA, NHL, MLB — already made significant adjustments, from restricting media access, to keeping out fans in certain arenas, especially in hard-hit California and Washington. “Social distancing” is the phrase, because limiting contact is the only way to quell the spread.

More: NBA suspends season; Jazz player Rudy Gobert, just in Detroit, reportedly has coronavirus

More: Opening Day two weeks away, Tigers 'remain flexible' as coronavirus pandemic escalates

At the very least, this dramatic move should raise awareness about the measures that need to be taken. Just by percentages — from 18,000 people in an arena to maybe 200 — it reduces the threat.

The NCAA Tournament won’t be the same, not even close, because it’s a celebration of participation, from the fans to the bands to the tiny schools getting their one shot. Atmosphere is everything, and there’s no livelier event than a March Madness game when an upset is brewing and the favorite is sweating, and TV cameras catch fans clasping their hands in prayer, even crying. There are more hugs and tears in the Tournament than just about anywhere, and that makes it great, worthy of a TV contract that pays the NCAA more than $1.1 billion annually.

And if you’re wondering whether this is a precursor to complete cancellation, there’s your answer. The Tournament accounts for approximately 80% of the NCAA’s total revenue. That’s a pretty nice incentive to play the games, and with fans forced to stay home and watch, you can bet ratings on CBS and Turner will thrive.

Already, several conferences are conducting their tournaments in front of empty stands, and the Ivy League canceled completely. The Big Ten began its tournament in Indianapolis Wednesday with media restrictions but no fan banishment, and then later in the night, announced fans would be barred the rest of the event.

In the risk-benefit analysis, we are deep into uncharted territory. Michigan, Michigan State and many other schools are sending students home and barring fans from events. Michigan cancelled its spring football game and shut down all recruiting.

Accepting reality

From Seattle to San Francisco to Houston, large gatherings of people have been prohibited. It really ratcheted up when Ohio governor Mike DeWine declared earlier Wednesday that “mass gatherings” would not be permitted in the state. That’s why the Mid-American Conference tournament in Cleveland is being played without fans. The NCAA Tournament is set to open Tuesday in Dayton, and Cleveland is a regional site for the next round. So the Ohio edict, in a sense, forced the NCAA’s move.

We’ve heard from conference commissioners and governors and school presidents the past two weeks, but this is when we have to listen to the science and health experts. And the science is saying louder and louder that large groups shouldn’t be gathering, that the disease spread so quickly in China and Italy precisely because these measures weren’t taken.

There were more than 1,000 confirmed cases in the U.S. as of Wednesday night, with 37 deaths. But the relatively low number isn’t the issue. The rapid rate of rise is the issue, with more than 125,000 infected worldwide.

“We would recommend there not be large crowds,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, testifying on Capitol Hill Wednesday. “If that means not having any people in the audience, so be it.”

Containment is the goal, and there’s no event more widespread than the NCAA Tournament, with fans travelling virtually from everywhere. Early-round games are scheduled in every pocket of the country, eight sites in all, from Spokane to Albany to Sacramento. The regional rounds are slated for Indianapolis, Los Angeles, New York and Houston.

Public health takes precedence, obviously, and I doubt there will be much pushback from coaches and players. Deep disappointment and sadness, certainly, but it’s impossible to ignore a dawning reality.

“I promise you, my thought on it shouldn’t matter and it won’t matter,” Tom Izzo said. “I’m just gonna wait and see what the people say and do whatever they say. If they say we play in empty arenas, we play in empty arenas. If they say we play in full arenas, we play in full arenas.”

Without fans, there will be a sterility to the Tournament, and that’s the goal of health officials. There are still logistics to figure out, and Emmert said the NCAA is looking to move some competition from gigantic football stadiums, such as the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, site of the Final Four, to smaller arenas.

The Big Ten tournament is expected to be one of the most hotly contested ever, and the absence of fans won’t necessarily change that. Michigan State is the defending champ and Michigan is looking to reach the title game for the fourth straight season. It should be like a mini-March Madness, with a record 10 Big Ten teams likely to make the NCAA field. 

But the cheering will fade, and while it’s unfortunate, it’s also eerily fascinating. All you’ll hear in the Tournament games will be whistles, squeaking shoes and bouncing balls, and perhaps some entertaining exchanges between coaches and referees. Will it affect the outcomes? I suppose it could, and if the Spartans end up in nearby Cleveland, as many predict, they’ll lose out on an expected homecourt advantage.

In the grand scheme, there are far greater prices to pay these days. The games go on and compelling stories will be told, but the arena echoes will be constant reminders of what’s truly at stake. @bobwojnowski