The news of the suspended game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder included a startling detail. ESPN reported that a Thunder medical staff member grabbed the game officials a few minutes before tipoff and told them something. Then the teams headed to their benches and the game was eventually canceled.
Not long after, Stadium reported Jazz forward Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19. And not long after that, the NBA announced it was suspending its season.
That moment appears to be a tipping point to what could be wholesale changes to the American sports landscape, including the upcoming NCAA tournament. In a dizzying flurry on Wednesday night, the NBA announced its season will be suspended, actor Tom Hanks announced on Twitter that he has the coronavirus and President Trump instituted a travel ban to Europe.
This is an inflection point for both sports and society, as the NCAA tournament appears to be in peril. It’s virtually impossible to imagine the NCAA, which just hours before announced a tournament without fans, carrying on as planned in the wake of the NBA news.
“That was alarming at the highest level,” a Power Five head coach told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday night of the NBA news. “Our players are young. We understand that this is most dangerous for a certain group of people. The risk is, is it worth putting your players at risk? Putting the safety of your players and staff at risk?”
What happened in the NBA with Gobert’s diagnosis is the nightmare scenario for the NCAA and every university playing in the tournament. A player gets the virus and potentially exposes his team, the opposition and anyone else they run across in their travels.
“I’m surprised that the NCAA tournament is going to happen with no fans,” a veteran college coach who regularly appears in the NCAA tournament texted Yahoo Sports on Wednesday night. “By not protecting players and coaches, isn’t it a huge liability/lawsuit if a player or coach gets the virus from a game? I know the NCAA wants the check from CBS, but it doesn’t seem fair to players and coaches putting them in harms way.”
About an hour later, the Gobert and NBA news came in rapid-fire succession. And that leaves the sporting landscape as we know it poised for change. Along with the NCAA tournament, spring staples like the Boston Marathon, The Masters and the Kentucky Derby all have to be on watch.
In college sports, this dizzying day should have long-reaching implications. The Ivy League canceled all of its spring sports on Wednesday. Don’t be surprised if other leagues follow suit, with special exemptions to preserve eligibility for those who’ve lost their seasons. Multiple coaches texted Yahoo Sports on Wednesday about the recruiting calendar, as both basketball and football coaches will soon be shuttling around the country — from airport to airport — for the spring recruiting periods in both those sports. (And that doesn’t include the dozens of other sports who’ll have coaches on the road.)
The NCAA has handled all of this cautiously. They put together a committee of medical experts. As the news cycles picked up, the organization made pragmatic moves that matched the tenor of the times. That hit what appeared to be a crescendo on Wednesday afternoon when the tournament was announced to be played with no fans.
That set off a domino of all the major conferences banning fans from their tournaments. Can similar dominoes of leagues canceling their tournaments be far behind?
As of late Wednesday, no more news was expected to come from the NCAA. Coaches were wondering if their conference tournament games are going to be put on hold. While canceling the NCAA tournament isn’t a guarantee, some type of extended delay or pause appears to be in order.
“That would make more sense to me,” said the Power Five coach of a team headed to the NCAA tournament. “Suspension would make more sense than cancelation. But just because so many people have worked really hard to earn the right. I would think that would make more sense than a total cancelation.”
To the coaches who’d have to take teams to the tournament, travel through airports and stay in hotels, the NBA news appeared to be a tipping point. A Power Five coach said that 48 hours ago, he’d have been stunned if he were told there wouldn’t be fans at the venues. This morning, he’d have been surprised if anyone mentioned canceling the tournament.
But one thing became clear on a night that changed everything in the American sporting landscape and beyond.
“Given how rapid this has happened in the last 48 hours, it would not surprise me,” the Power Five coach said of the potential cancelation of the NCAA tournament. “It changes things once you have a player that’s tested positive.”
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