Wiedmer: Even March Madness is no match for the coronavirus

AP photo by Michael Conroy / Flags for the 2020 Division I men's basketball tournament's Final Four fly over the national office of the NCAA on Thursday in Indianapolis. The NCAA canceled the Division I men's and women's basketball tournaments, as well as the rest of its winter and spring sports championships, amid coronavirus concerns.

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NASHVILLE - This newspaper's Gene Henley and I had just gotten on the shuttle bus that would take us from Nissan Stadium to Bridgestone Arena on Thursday morning when the "breaking news" headlines flashed across various social media outlets.

"The SEC men's basketball tournament has been canceled," the bulletins proclaimed.


They haven't failed to stage an SEC men's basketball tourney since it was resurrected in 1979 after a 25-year absence. How. Can. This. Be?

Only the reason for this disruption, it turned out, had nothing to do with Kentucky's domination of the league, as was the case in 1954, even if both the Wildcats and their Big Blue Nation still pretty much rule the event. No, this was because of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, which reportedly has killed nearly 5,000 people worldwide and infected more than 133,000. At least 39 people in the United States had died as of Thursday afternoon, with more than 1,300 infected.

As SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said early Thursday afternoon of this decision: "I have a responsibility to care for people, both our staff, our student-athletes, our coaches and our fans, and we made the best decisions possible."

Yet as stunning as that development was, it was merely the warmup act for what would hit the news wires by a little after 4 p.m., when the NCAA announced that it was canceling the real tournaments, its men's and women's championships, or March Madness, as the men's event has come to be known, for the first time in the event's history.

That's right. World War II couldn't cancel the NCAA tourney. The 1981 assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan couldn't so much as delay the championship won later that March 30 day by Indiana over North Carolina.

But COVID-19 has canceled what is inarguably America's biggest multiweek sporting event. Along with it, the NCAA canceled later national championship events in baseball, softball, men's and women's hockey and men's and women's lacrosse.

Even Sankey, who seemed to be on board with whatever the NCAA chose to do regarding the basketball tournament, was in shock over the cancellation of baseball and softball.

"Surprised that we've made a decision now in mid-March to not play baseball or softball national championship events [scheduled for June]," Sankey said on Thursday's "Paul Finebaum Show" on the SEC Network. "So I look forward to learning what informed that decision."

Perhaps it was the same information that caused Sankey to go from banning fans from the SEC tournament after Wednesday night's opening-round wins by Georgia and Arkansas inside Bridgestone to the league's decision to cancel the SEC tourney altogether.

Said Sankey of that decision while referencing a Wednesday meeting of the NCAA board of governors: "I don't have all of those details, but it was about spread, about the need to interrupt the potential spread and the role of college athletics and big events in engaging in stopping that potential spread."

So it's over. March Madness is now officially March Sadness for college basketball coaches, players and fans alike. As if that's not enough, the NBA has postponed its schedule for at least 30 days. The NHL is taking a break. Major League Baseball will delay opening day at least two weeks. Pro tennis is taking an extended break. Talk about your false springs.

Not that there aren't a couple of silver linings in all this beyond the public's health and safety. By canceling the tournament, the NCAA won't have to possibly endure the embarrassment of handing the trophy to expected overall No. 1 seed Kansas on April 6, only to eventually strip the Jayhawks of that title should they be found guilty of at least five Level 1 NCAA wrongs they've been charged with.

On a slightly lighter note, the rest of the college hoops universe not exactly in love with Duke surely now will be spared the Capital One advertising campaign featuring Dookies coach Mike Krzyzewski bragging about his five national championships to date.

Does it stink? Through the narrow prism of the college basketball junkie, sure it does. The most darkly cynical among us even might argue that this is China's revenge for President Trump's tariff. Were there other solutions? Maybe. As my 15-year-old daughter Julia Caroline noted, "Why can't they have May Madness?"

But there is also this from Texas A&M men's basketball coach Buzz Williams, who told the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald-Leader earlier this week: "I don't want anybody to get sick. I don't want anybody to die."

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Of playing the games without fans, which had been the NCAA's initial decision, he added, "Then I'd ask, if we're playing and no fans are here, does that mean we don't care if we die? Because can't we get (the coronavirus) amongst one another?"

Anyone want to challenge that argument?

Beyond that, there's the opportunity for the rest of us to enjoy the smaller joys of spring we so often miss. The blooming of daffodils, dogwoods and azaleas. Really listening to our significant others and children instead of saying, "I'm a little busy here. They're about to go to overtime." Realizing that referees, at least a few of them, are people, too.

As he was wrapping up an interview on the SEC Network on Thursday afternoon, Sankey said of the entire situation regarding the coronavirus as it pertains to those the circumstances affect the most - the players: "If this is the worst thing that happens to our men's basketball student-athletes, they'll have a great life."

There's surely a message in there somewhere for the rest of us.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.