Wojo: Sadly, the games had to stop before the healing could begin

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — A few fans lingered outside, snapping photos in front of the brick arena adorned with the Big Ten logos. There was no shouting, no noise at all. They looked like tourists, posing at some historic marker.

This was the day the cheering died, for now, maybe for a while. It was a day unlike any other, amid a crisis unlike any other, somber, sobering and difficult to fathom. In an extraordinary sequence of events, no sport was spared. One after another — the Big Ten basketball tournament here, all conference tournaments, the NCAA Tournament, the NBA, the NHL, major league baseball, all college spring activities — shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, leaving emptiness and sadness in places they’re not supposed to be.

Mike Lemcke sits in an empty Greensboro Coliseum. The ACC tourney was canceled.

This was the moment that sports in America changed, no longer an escape from the world’s ills, but a symbol of the world’s ills. NCAA President Mark Emmert delivered the final crusher Thursday, canceling the NCAA Tournament as expected. By then, there was nothing left to cheer, no real argument against the stoppages, no other options.

They were the right calls precisely because of what sports produce — large gatherings of people at a time when gathering too closely heightens the risk of the virus spreading. In a way, the halt may be helpful, to focus attention and resources on the only battle that matters right now. How long will the playing fields be barren? Nobody knows, maybe a couple of weeks or more, and frankly, it’s not the most-pressing issue as disease experts struggle to contain a threat with no boundaries.

The cancellation of the NCAA Tournament was the biggest shame of all, because college careers and seasons abruptly ended, while the pros will have another chance. Think about that. There will be no Final Four run for Michigan State and Tom Izzo, who had a shot at his elusive second national title. There will be no fitting, final salve for the wondrous Cassius Winston, eternally ill-fated, his time as a Spartan ended.

For seniors such as Michigan’s Zavier Simpson and Jon Teske, the memories will remain unmade. On social media, Simpson aptly illustrated the heartbreak for many, posting two crying emojis.

This really couldn’t be stopped, not until the virus is stopped. Once pro athletes were sidelined, it was hard to imagine — or justify — sending college players into the uncertain atmosphere. There was some discussion about postponing the tournament to see if the outbreak lessened, but the logistics weren’t feasible.

The NCAA tried, first limiting access to the media, then eliminating access for fans. The Big Ten played two games in a fan-less Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and Michigan and Rutgers were set to resume the tournament at noon Thursday. But approximately 15 minutes before tip-off, players were called off the court and the announcement was made.

A half-hour later, Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel was walking out of the arena, his mood reflective of the day. He fully supported Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, as painful as the result was.

Warde Manuel

“It was the right decision to make at this time,” Manuel said. “We realized, this is bigger than playing a game under even restricted circumstances. We will play sports again in college, we’ll play basketball again, but maybe it’s time we hit the pause button and continue to figure this issue out. It’s a worldwide issue, different than anything we’ve ever dealt with.”

It indeed was a seminal moment in American sports, ratcheted up after two members of the NBA’s Utah Jazz, Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, tested positive for the coronavirus. That forced the league to implement unprecedented measures, sending players and opposing teams — including the Pistons, who faced the Jazz a week ago at Little Caesars Arena — into various levels of quarantine.

Once the NBA made its decision late Wednesday to stop play, the NHL had no choice but to follow, suspending games for an undetermined time, with the intent of resuming this season. Basketball and hockey teams share stadiums, locker rooms and fans, theoretically making it easier for the virus to find an unwitting host.

By midday Thursday, baseball had halted spring training and pushed the start of the season back at least a couple of weeks. The Tigers’ cherished home Opening Day, scheduled for March 30, will be later.

The NFL canceled its annual meetings and pulled scouts and other personnel off the road. For now, the draft is still slated for April 23 in Las Vegas, which at least would keep alive one sports staple, the time-honored mock draft debates. The list of stoppages is exhausting to recount — from all Big Ten competitions through the end of the academic year, to spring football at Michigan, Ohio State and other schools, to Major League Soccer for 30 days.

But the one that stings deeply is the loss of college basketball’s magical March Madness, from Selection Sunday to bracket mania to the Final Four that was supposed to be in Atlanta. Who knows what the financial implications will be, with the NCAA Tournament drawing $1.1 billion annually from TV networks.

What replaces all those time slots? What fills the sudden free time in our lives for the next month or so? What happens to the arena workers, restaurant workers and hotel workers whose livelihoods depend on crowds? What happens to the basketball players not talented enough for the NBA, whose one shining moment was wiped away?

Fair questions, but right now, not the most important questions, unfortunately. That’s what Warren wrestled with, talking to athletic directors and school presidents, trying to balance the right thing to do with the popular thing to do.

“This is one of those situations where a lot of people were telling me, ‘I don’t know,’ and I get concerned when I hear ‘I don’t know’ a few too many times,” Warren said. “If it comes down that I overreacted, or we overreacted, I’m comfortable with that. But as I sit here today, in these kinds of situations, you can never overreact from a safety standpoint.”

So the pause button was pushed in a country that loves the play button and is generally suspicious of the panic button. From a public-health standpoint, it was necessary, and you realize it more with each positive test, from NBA stars to Hollywood stars. When Disneyland closes, Tom Hanks is ill and cases in the U.S. rise to 1,500 in 46 states, you know we’re a long way from normalcy.

You can’t wish away or deny away the global threat. The games will return eventually, hopefully to a safer, saner world. In the meantime, if you ever truly wondered whether you can survive without sports, sadly, you’re about to find out.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski