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Barber: Kicking and screaming, NCAA cancels March Madness

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The NCAA finally released its death grip on the money at 1:16 p.m. Thursday. That’s when the governing body of American college sports tweeted a statement from its president, Mark Emmert, declaring that the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, along with other winter and spring college championships, are hereby canceled.

It was the right decision. And it took a team of piano movers, straining with all their might to pull Emmert’s hand away from that suitcase full of dough, to make it happen.

I sympathize with the NCAA and other sports entities, I really do. They are not charitable organizations. They exist primarily to make money. And though most of that money never manages to find its way past the top few tiers at the top, the business of sports does employ a lot of Americans — as equipment managers and locker-room attendants, vendors and security guards, PR staff and ticket sellers, all of it.

So no, it couldn’t have been easy for the NBA and NHL and Major League Soccer, all currently steaming toward the playoffs, to suspend their seasons, or for Major League Baseball to cancel the rest of spring training and delay opening day. And it could not have been easy for the NCAA to clear its sports calendar.

The organization’s big loss, of course, is the men’s basketball tournament. The NCAA makes close to $1 billion from March Madness these days, a massive TV-and-arena windfall that pays for … well, mostly for the salaries and bonuses of NCAA executives, college officials, tournament organizers, athletic directors and high-profile coaches, but you get the point.

As the dominoes began to fall Thursday, it became increasingly obvious that there won’t be even One Shining Moment this year.

We’re not talking about small dominoes, either. This was not the soothing clatter of a Rube Goldberg device. It was a set of sequoia-sized dominoes toppling onto one another, and the speed at which they fell was dizzying.

Take the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament as an example. At 4:17 p.m. Wednesday, the conference announced that the tourney would proceed as planned, but (basically) with warmer water and more Purell in the arena. At 5:53 p.m. that day, with games in progress, the Pac-12 abruptly changed gears and said no fans would be allowed to attend subsequent games. At 9:17 a.m. Thursday, it canceled the tournament altogether.

The news was breaking faster than you could follow it.

The cascade of cancellations among major sporting events and festivals and conventions, the closing of amusement parks and university campuses, it all started to feel like panic Wednesday and Thursday, and that’s how some ideologues attempted to frame it. (If you don’t know who Clay Travis is, I envy you.) But this was the opposite of a panic.

I don’t pretend to be deeply educated in the field of public health, but everything I’ve read from researchers and health officials has painted a similar picture. If you are reasonably young and reasonably healthy, there’s little chance COVID-19 will kill you. But anyone can get it, and anyone can pass it along to more vulnerable people.

The only reasonable course of action is to discourage people from assembling in large crowds for a while. As a vox.com article put it, “A disastrous inundation of hospitals can likely be averted with protective measures we’re now seeing more of — closing schools, canceling mass gatherings, working from home, self-quarantine, self-isolation, avoiding crowds — to keep the virus from spreading fast.”

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So a group of major sports businesses acknowledged that, despite how it might affect the bottom line in the short term, they would shutter the arena doors.

But into Thursday afternoon, there was a major holdout. The NCAA had gone through the first two stages of corporate grief — Everything Is Fine, followed by Fans Stay Home — but had not committed to the third. By 1 p.m. Thursday, March Madness was still in play.

This was absurd. Of all the upcoming sporting events, none felt as risky as March Madness. Bad enough for, say, the Warriors to host the Brooklyn Nets, as they were supposed to do Thursday night. That’s one set of players, coaches and support staff flying to mingle with another set. The men’s basketball tournament includes 68 teams (thanks to the stupid play-in games), flying all over the country in various combinations. The women’s tournament involves 64 teams. Even without spectators, it would be coronavirus Coachella.

And yet the NCAA was the last to act. Surprising? Nah, it’s perfectly on brand for these guys.

To put it mildly, the NCAA isn’t in the business of giving a damn about its athletes. In fact, its business model is built around the exploitation of those athletes, specifically football and men’s basketball players. There are 58 men’s college basketball coaches making $2 million or more this year. Nine of them make better than $4 million. Meanwhile, the players we tune in to watch (or many of them) get room and board and tuition, the latter being a gift that doesn’t always prove meaningful in the long run.

The NCAA not only refuses to pay its athletes salaries. It doesn’t even want to allow them to benefit from promotional fees or part-time jobs, as other college students can. You thought this group was going to put the health of its workers above profits in the face of a contagion?

I honestly doubt Emmert and his colleagues would have made the decision to power down if their hand hadn’t been forced by individual universities. Earlier Thursday, Duke and Kansas, perhaps the bluest of college basketball bluebloods, both announced they were suspending all athletic activities. Not long after that, the NCAA accepted the inevitable and called off March Madness.

Again, I’m not trying to downplay the magnitude of that decision. I’m still coming to terms with a March devoid of buzzer-beaters, Cinderella teams and over-caffeinated pep bands. It’s a shocking development. But it had become the only acceptable outcome.

Sometimes, even the worst actors can be shamed into doing the right thing.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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