March Madness is back, baby, and it’s as if nothing has changed. All your favorite teams will be vying for the national championship so long as they have enough negative COVID-19 tests to participate. Oh, and the Duke Blue Devils will not be there. The school announced on Thursday that its season has ended after a member of the team (reported to be a walk-on player) tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the cancellation of its ACC quarterfinals matchup against Florida State.
And then there’s reigning champion Virginia, which had to forfeit its ACC semifinals game due to a positive COVID-19 test.
March Madness attendees must produce seven straight negative daily tests before arriving in Indianapolis, meaning Virginia’s pre-tourney prep will include lots of isolating and compiling negative PCR swabs. Duke’s regular-season performance, meanwhile, gave it little shot at an at-large bid into the big bracket, so the early exit from its conference tournament effectively ends the program’s season. The Blue Devils will not be attending March Madness for the first time since 1995. Well, not including last year, when the tournament was canceled entirely due to the emerging coronavirus pandemic. But don’t worry, the NCAA has had a full year to assemble a plan as that pandemic has raged on. There are protocols in place this time around, though many of them seem to be some variation of “keep on truckin.’ ”
What happens if, as in the ACC Tournament, teams at the big dance come down with COVID-19 cases? The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that schools will be allowed to participate in the tournament if they lose squad members to the virus—so long as they can put the bare minimum of pathogen-free bodies on the court. “We decided if they had five players eligible and healthy, [they could play],” NCAA senior VP of basketball Dan Gavitt said. “We wrestled with contingencies, and thought it was fairest for a team that earned its way, that even if it was compromised, they should have the opportunity to play rather than be replaced.”
To be clear, this is bonkers. It is literal attrition. If the NCAA were in charge of post-apocalyptic Australia, it would be selling corporate sponsorships to Thunderdome while hailing the death match as a wonderful opportunity for its young athletes. (Master Blaster is a No. 3 and scrappy No. 11 seed, respectively.)
Schools can withdraw from the men’s and women’s tournaments in the event of a virus outbreak, but the NCAA is allowing replacement teams into the bracket for only 48 hours after Selection Sunday, which is this weekend. After that point, a team forced to leave Indianapolis (where the men’s games are being played) or Texas (where the women’s games are being played) will forfeit its contest, and its opponent will advance to the next round. This allows for the very real possibility that a No. 16 seed gets crowned national champion without playing a single game. If you see the Saint Peter’s Peacocks cruising to the Final Four, know that something terrible has happened.
During the regular season, college conferences could postpone or scrap games when needed. This resulted in dozens of rescheduled or canceled contests (a total that doesn’t account for the schools and conferences that called off their seasons entirely), but college basketball nonetheless managed to limp to the buzzer. The tournament is different, though. It doesn’t enjoy the regular season’s luxury of malleability.
As such, March Madness presents a unique challenge for the NCAA, an organization that is wholly dedicated to maintaining a sheen of normalcy atop its wildly abnormal business model. There are commonsense approaches available, like reducing the number of schools or delaying the tournament to a date when the NCAA can guarantee the safety of its players and staff. But those would be admissions that all is not normal and that the NCAA can’t handle it. It has to be 68 teams. It has to be March. Just ignore the five-man skeleton crew trying to break a full-court press after 40-straight minutes of substitute-free basketball. We can chalk that up to the charm of amateurism.
That’s to say nothing of money. The NCAA’s annual revenue reportedly declined by $600 million due to the cancellation of the 2020 tournament. This year, it’s set to rake in all those hundreds of millions of dollars it missed out on from television advertising deals and ticket sales—which, yes, they really are selling to a limited number of fans to watch and cheer indoors. As always, a reminder: Zero of those dollars earned are going to the players, who, so long as each team has five of ’em, will continue to risk their own health.
Now, I know we’ve only been dealing with the pandemic for a full calendar year, but this strategy doesn’t seem to account for niche issues like “the virus” or “the fact that the virus is contagious.” When asked what the plan is if members of a coaching staff succumb to COVID-19, the NCAA’s Gavitt responded, “Honestly, it’s probably something we should talk about as a committee.” No rush. I mean, who could have predicted there’d be coaches at a basketball tournament?
For the executives and sponsors, forging ahead is low-risk, but the same can’t be said for those coaches or for the players. The nation is so close to having things like normal college basketball tournaments back. Vaccines are being jabbed into arms at a thrilling rate, and fatality numbers are falling. We have a year’s worth of evidence to prove that sticking your fingers in your ears and going lalalalala won’t protect you from the virus, but the NCAA is willing to give that strategy one more shot.