With much of men’s college basketball, including the SEC, canceling conference tournaments on Thursday in response to the growing threat of coronavirus spreading in the United States, the writing was on the wall for the NCAA Tournaments in men’s and women’s basketball, two of college sports’ signature events.
But rather than just cancel those events — set to begin next week — the NCAA has met the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic with an extraordinary decision: Canceling all of its winter and spring championships.
And for once, the much-maligned organization is getting something right.
Where we sit with so-called coronavirus — the coronavirus disease is COVID-19, the virus causing it SARS-2 CoV-2 — is just on the side of the tipping point when exponential spread can be prevented or mitigated. It is here in the United States, to be clear, and both devastating vulnerable populations and spreading quickly among the general populace.
This is a highly infectious virus — confirmed cases have doubled rapidly basically wherever it has appeared without drastic social distancing measures to combat it. It is also an especially deadly one for vulnerable populations, with a mortality rate in the Hubei province in China — home of Wuhan, where the virus was first identified and where it has hit hardest — above one percent for every decade’s age group from 50-59 upwardand a stunning 18 percent for people 80 and over. (To put this in perspective, the mortality rate for seasonal flu sufferers over 65 — the highest-risk group for the flu — is under one percent.)
Its infectiousness also poses enormous risk to health care systems that are simply not prepared to receive thousands of coronavirus sufferers while also tending to their usual patient inflow and outflow. Italy’s healthcare system is being taxed to its fullest right now, and the U.S. may be facing a crisis on the order of Italy’s — or worse.
This is a pandemic, per the World Health Organization — and our handling of it, as individual citizens and constituent members of countries and organizations is bluntly a matter of life and death. The little things done by individuals and the bigger things done by organizations and governments could spare high-risk individuals and stem a tide sweeping entire populations.
And the best thing we can all do right now is engage in social distancing, the practice of minimizing exposure to fellow humans and thus possible vectors for disease, which widely regarded as the best response to a pandemic — and still can only likely slow it down.
For the better of us all, it is incumbent on all of us to stay home whenever possible, limit social contact and possible transmission of disease, and generally do our best with our supreme human intellects to outwit a virus that can’t kill whom it doesn’t infect. This will only be partially successful, as perfect social distancing is impossible, but the degree to which we get this right as a species will help decide how many of us survive.
And if that sounds dramatic, it’s fair to say that it is. But a disease with a mortality rate above one percent that infects 75 percent of the U.S. population of about 330 million would be projected to kill 2.5 million people — roughly the population of Chicago. If we can do something to keep those numbers as low as possible — and we can — then we absolutely should.
The same is true for the NCAA, which took the rare step on Thursday of making a decision that is sincerely in the best interests of its student-athletes.
No, those student-athletes are not likely to die of coronavirus, as it largely seems to be harshest on the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. But thousands of student-athletes traveling all over the country during a pandemic was going to be a public-health nightmare. And while most organizations had already hastily committed to a two-week hiatus through at least March as of Thursday afternoon, the NCAA’s decision now gives all of its individual member schools cover to care about keeping their student-athletes — and their families, and their loved ones, and the coaches and support staff employed to help them — healthy and safe, rather than endangering them while chasing athletic glory.
That cover will be invaluable. If Duke or Florida or Kansas or Wisconsin fans are mad at someone? Take it out on the NCAA, already one of the least-liked organizations in sports. The NCAA is used to being wildly unpopular nationally — and in taking this decision on for all of its member schools, it preserves their individual brands by protecting them from public flak.
That the NCAA’s decision robs tens of thousands of student-athletes of an opportunity to chase that glory is obviously painful to student-athlete and fan alike. Florida fans could have seen their Gators go after a handful of NCAA championships this year; instead, barring a reversal of course by the NCAA, this will be the first academic year since 2004-05, 15 seasons ago, in which Florida will not hoist a national title.
That seniors on all of those teams may have had their careers unceremoniously and abruptly ended is ignominious at best.
That hurts, too, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see something historic done to reflect the extraordinary end to this year in college sports as a result.
But imagine Florida’s gymnastics or baseball team — No. 2 and No. 1 in national rankings, respectively, entering this week — going to an NCAA championship, winning it all ... and someone in attendance passing coronavirus on to proud grandparents who traveled to watch a triumphant grandchild, left with the worst souvenir possible, and passed shortly after their attendance.
The NCAA does not want that blood on its hands. And for once, an organization that can be callous and cowardly in the worst ways has decided to be cautious in the best way — a way that will prove to be the correct decision in time no matter how unpopular it is today.
These are extraordinary times that call for extraordinary measures. One of those measures is a suspension of the panem et circences that we are privileged to have as part of civilized society but by no means are entitled to as rights.
This is going to suck for you and me and the many other people who will be battling boredom over the next four months, wishing that the Gators were on — whether or not were actually going to enjoy watching them or not.
But it’s the right call. It’s the right thing.
No one ever said doing the right thing was always fun.