Scrutiny on NCAA tournament coronavirus plan intensifies as two leagues keep out fans

The Indianapolis-based NCAA faced mounting pressure over how it will conduct its marquee event Tuesday, the same day the Ivy League canceled its conference basketball tournaments and two other Division I conferences announced that their tournaments would be played without spectators because of escalating concerns about the novel coronavirus.

The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments are scheduled to begin next week at more than two dozen sites across the country, including multiple venues in Ohio, where Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, issued a strong recommendation Tuesday to play indoor sporting events in nearly empty arenas. The NCAA remained noncommittal in how it will proceed.

“The NCAA continues to assess how covid-19 impacts the conduct of our tournaments and events,” the organization said in a statement, referring to the disease caused by the new coronavirus. “We are consulting with public health officials and our COVID-19 advisory panel, who are leading experts in epidemiology and public health, and will make decisions in the coming days.”

As coronavirus concerns have shut down college campuses, canceled political rallies and led to the National Guard entering New Rochelle, New York, scrutiny is intensifying on the NCAA, which is preparing to host large-scale gatherings across the country. The pace of the coronavirus’s spread and statements by public officials further raised the specter of one of America’s most popular sporting events unfolding in front of television audiences only, with squeaking sneakers and bouncing balls providing an echoing, eerie soundtrack.

The Mid-American Conference and the Big West announced minutes apart Tuesday evening they would hold their tournaments—in Cleveland and Anaheim, California, respectively—without spectators. The MAC followed the recommendation of DeWine, who asked for no spectators at indoor sporting events “other than the athletes, parents, and others essential to the game.”

“The safety of all is our greatest concern,” MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said.

Amid concerns elsewhere, the ACC began its conference tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina, as scheduled Tuesday night, closing locker rooms to media and other visitors but allowing spectators at the games. The Big 12 and the Big Ten announced that their men’s tournaments, scheduled to begin Wednesday in Kansas City and Indianapolis, respectively, would go on without interruption aside from closing locker rooms.

The Big Ten’s decision stood in contrast to the measures taken by Indiana University, about 50 miles away in Bloomington, which announced students would take classes remotely for two weeks after next week’s spring break.

The NCAA men’s tournament is scheduled to begin March 17 and 18 in Dayton, Ohio. Cleveland’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse, which is also hosting the MAC tournament, is scheduled to host eight teams for first- and second-round men’s tournament games March 20 and 22. The women’s tournament is scheduled to begin March 20 and 21 at the home sites of the 16 highest-seeded teams.

On Tuesday, the Ohio Department of Health confirmed three positive coronavirus cases in the state and said 15 others are being tested.

“It’s important to understand our responses are based on the facts as they stand today,” DeWine spokesman Daniel Tierney said. “The governor strongly recommends the organization consider having the event without spectators. At this point, it’s a strong recommendation. We have not issued any order.”

Last week, DeWine announced an order from the Ohio Department of Health banning spectators from the Arnold Sports Festival bodybuilding trade show and competition. The governor’s office previously had worked with event organizers to get them to voluntarily tell spectators to remain home, Tierney said.

Tierney emphasized facts could change by next week when the NCAA tournament starts. He also said the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers called the governor’s office arguing that ventilation inside their arenas would make it safer for fans than a smaller venue, such as a high school gym. Tierney said the governor would study those claims. The Cavaliers play in Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.

Representatives at the University of Dayton and the Mid-American Conference, the hosts of the First Four and the Cleveland subregional, said the NCAA would make any decisions regarding those games.

While forming an advisory panel of experts and epidemiologists, the NCAA has played down worries the coronavirus will impact its most lucrative event. In an interview Saturday on CBS, NCAA Senior Vice President for Basketball Dan Gavitt said the association is “definitively planning on running the tournament at all 14 sites with fans from the First Four in Dayton to the Final Four in Atlanta.”

The NCAA initially responded to the Ivy League’s cancellation by saying schools and conferences can make their own decisions on regular-season and conference tournaments, but that nothing had changed for the NCAA tournament.

“NCAA member schools and conferences make their own decisions regarding regular season and conference tournament play,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said in a statement. “As we have stated, we will make decisions on our events based on the best, most current public health guidance available.”

The structure of the NCAA tournament raises questions. In typical circumstances, teams and their extensive traveling parties travel, with fans in tow, to first- and second-round host sites scattered across the country. A host arena may not be located in or near an outbreak, but it could be inviting scores of people from a coronavirus hot spot. After a weekend of sharing hotels, restaurants and an arena, those fans would head back to where they came from.

In an interview last week, NCAA coronavirus advisory panel member and Emory University global health department Chair Carlos del Rio said that he and fellow experts will make recommendations based on public health, but that the NCAA will make final calls.

“For me, it’s a public-health decision,” del Rio said. “What I will tell the NCAA is based on public health. For them, it’s going to be also a business decision. It has to be.”

Early Tuesday, the Ivy League canceled men’s and women’s conference tournaments and declared its regular-season champions, the Yale men and Princeton women, its NCAA tournament representatives.

Both tournaments were to be held at Harvard, which has taken precautions against the coronavirus. The university asked students not to return from spring break and announced that it will close dormitories Sunday while moving all classes online by March 23. Close to the Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus, 32 cases have been connected to a conference the biopharmaceutical company Biogen held in Boston.

“We understand and share the disappointment with student-athletes, coaches and fans who will not be able to participate in these tournaments,” Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris said. “Regrettably, the information and recommendations presented to us from public health authorities and medical professionals have convinced us that this is the most prudent decision.”

Meanwhile, schools that have qualified for the NCAA tournament are preparing on uncertain ground. Utah State athletic director John Hartwell said the school’s traveling party last year consisted of 120 people and included players, coaches, a 30-member pep band, cheerleaders, support staffers, administrators and family members. If the NCAA mandates that only essential personnel can attend games, that will shrink to about 30 to 35.

“It’s important that we’re vigilant and paying close attention and monitoring all of the activity,” Hartwell said, “but at the same time trying to maintain as much of a normal routine of life as we can.”

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4 thoughts on “Scrutiny on NCAA tournament coronavirus plan intensifies as two leagues keep out fans

  1. Public Safety is more important is the dollars generated by the collegiate athletics. It’s not worth putting people’s lives on the line.

    1. in the state of Indiana .0000018% of the population has the Coronavirus and the death rate is ZERO. 3-12-20 2:35 PM