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As schools shut doors, NCAA faces 'enormous pressure' to make coronavirus changes at sporting events

We are in the throes of an unprecedented moment in sports, as the coronavirus is forging an indelible mark on the American sporting landscape.

On Tuesday alone, the drumbeat of news, images and changes to fundamental aspects of sports around the country provided news stories seemingly by the hour.

The day began with images of reporters interviewing baseball players at spring training standing six feet away. Then the Ivy League sent shockwaves through collegiate sports by canceling its postseason basketball tournament. Later in the day, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine called for no spectators at indoor sporting events on the cusp of an NCAA tournament with sites in Dayton and Cleveland next week.

Later, news that the MAC and Big West men’s and women’s conference basketball tournaments being closed to spectators came amid a backdrop of colleges of all sizes canceling classes from coast to coast. That came soon after UCLA announced home sporting events will be “largely spectator-free” through April 10.

With every academic campus that announced a switch to online learning — from USC to Ohio State to Rutgers — it ramped up the pressure on the NCAA to make a decision about what its tournament will look like.  

The entire day felt like a tipping point for a drastically altered American sports landscape amid the confusion and uncertainty of the coronavirus.

A NCAA logo is seen on the wall as Yeshiva players warm up prior to playing against Worcester Polytechnic Institute during the NCAA Division III men's basketball championship on March 6. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

The past 48 hours have featured such relentless and dizzying changes — a “cascade,” as one source termed it — that it’s becoming apparent we’re going to be adjusting to a new normal around the sports world. (While the MAC tournament in Cleveland won’t be open to the general public, the Columbus Blue Jackets of the NHL will continue to play in front of fans.)

The number of diagnosed cases of the coronavirus has increased to more than 950 in the United States and 29 people have died, according to The New York Times. Those numbers are only expected to increase in the upcoming weeks, leaving the sporting world scrambling and bracing itself for wholesale changes and a new normal. “The balance point between overreacting and being prudent is really hard to find here,” said a Power Five athletic director.

The biggest question looming over the sporting world for the next month will be the fate of the NCAA tournament. The NCAA’s marquee event — and the organization’s biggest money-making apparatus — is still scheduled to move ahead. But it’s difficult to imagine the NCAA tournament arriving without alterations or changes, which the NCAA hinted at late Tuesday when it announced that “in the coming days” it will make decisions regarding its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. This likely means a plan will come together before Selection Sunday, when the men’s tournament brackets are released.

Could there be games played with no fans? Could the tournament itself be canceled? Tuesday was a day that hinted at some type of seismic shift approaching.

Administrators around the country hopped from one conference call to another attempting to better understand the impact of the virus, strategize plans for dozens of sports and also attempt to balance decisions with what’s happening on the academic side of campus. Meanwhile, the ACC tournament tipped off in Greensboro, North Carolina, the WCC tournament was scheduled to conclude in Las Vegas and all the other power conference tournaments were slated to go on as planned with fans in the arena.

Interviews with multiple administrators, advisers and decision-makers around college sports identified a key tension — and potential tipping point — that will likely guide the NCAA’s tricky calculus in the upcoming week. According to Forbes, nearly 50 colleges have canceled in-person classes. That includes everywhere from Rice University to Duke University to the University of Washington.

That number is expected to increase exponentially in the upcoming days, with more major schools planning to tell their students not to return from spring break. The more schools that cancel their classes and have students take classes online means trickier decisions at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis.

“If half of the Power Five by Friday have canceled classes, there’s going to be enormous pressure on the [college] sports world to take some measure of their own,” said an industry source familiar with multiple schools’ thinking. “How could a school sit there and say it’s not safe for 40 kids to sit in a biology lecture but it is safe for teams to play a basketball game in front of 20,000 fans?”

A view of the Final Four logo prior to the semifinals of a 2019 NCAA women's Final Four game between Baylor and Oregon on April 05, 2019. (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

That hypocritical tension began manifesting itself on Tuesday. The Ivy league basketball tournaments were scheduled on Harvard’s campus and were canceled. (Harvard has also ended in-person classes.) That prompted the league to make an awkward decision to cancel the tournament but then allow the Yale men’s team, in theory, to go play in a large arena next week.

“When member institutions go purely online education, at what point does that become too big to ignore?” said a Power Five athletic director.

One Power Five athletic director pointed out that type of discrepancy is something that campuses — and therefore the NCAA — will be wrestling with in the upcoming weeks. Leagues and schools have reacted in myriad ways in the past weeks. Some leagues — Atlantic 10, America East and AAC among them — are banning or altering postgame handshakes. UConn women’s coach Geno Auriemma roundly mocked that idea this week. “I mean come on,” he said, noting the players had sweated on each other for two hours.

That’s a contrast to the ACC, which said in a statement that they are still having a Fan Fest, but are increasing the number of hand-sanitizer stations.

Even with a tournament that annually drives billions in revenue, the NCAA has long clung to the veneer of amateurism and academia. As campuses make difficult decisions on the academic side, the NCAA and its panel of public health experts are inevitably feeling increased pressure.

“My guess is it’s not the first round, but we’re going to see NCAA tournament games with no fans,” said the industry source. “I don’t think we’re going to go three weeks of having tens of thousands of fans in arenas. I think the NCAA is going to get pressure from the university presidents who are going to be saying this is a bad look for us if this continues.”

As the news flooded out on Tuesday, the only certainty appeared to be more uncertainty in the upcoming days.

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