NCAA president Mark Emmert on why the coronavirus led to cancellations

On Thursday, the NCAA made the unprecedented decision to cancel its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, as well as championship events for spring sports, as the U.S. and countries around the world try to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

For the first time since 1939, the NCAA men’s tournament won’t be played. Neither will the women’s tournament, College World Series, Frozen Four or national championship tournaments in other sports such as swimming and diving, golf, track and field, and tennis.

When last week started, NCAA president Mark Emmert couldn’t have imagined that the governing body of college sports would be forced to cancel March Madness, an American staple, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emmert spoke with ESPN at length on what was supposed to be Selection Sunday about the difficult week and what’s next for American intercollegiate athletics:

Emmert provided a detailed explanation of what transpired once the NCAA was confronted with the growing concern about the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • “We sent out [information about the coronavirus] to the athletics community back in January. Brian Hainline, our medical director, was one of the first to say, ‘This is out there. It’s coming to America. We’ve got to be careful. We’ve got to be thoughtful. We’ve got to think about the appropriate protocols.’ He was communicating to all of our members by mid-January and subsequently again in February when this all started to evolve.

“Set aside all of the politics, the media and what was going on in the NBA and everything else, the medical information was changing very, very rapidly as everybody got their arms around this. If you think back two weeks or three weeks ago, we were getting quite confusing and sometimes even contradictory information from state, federal, local officials and policymakers. We weren’t even talking about a pandemic yet. [The World Health Organization] hadn’t even declared it a pandemic at that stage. That’s why we put together our COVID-19 committee so we could sort through what was going on.”

  • “On Wednesday, which seems like a year ago, we were talking to the [COVID-19] advisory panel and getting really good information. We were incredibly fortunate to have Vivek Murthy, the 19th surgeon general of the U.S., on our board of governors and on the COVID-19 panel. We were completely convinced at 4 p.m. Wednesday that we could conduct the championships without fans by controlling the sites effectively. One of the team members on our panel is the head of security for the US Open, so he could help us think through event management. We thought we could control the perimeters and control the environment and, as best as possible, travel because it’s mostly charter travel and buses one way or another. We felt really confident about it. We were feeling really, really good.”

  • “As we got into Wednesday evening, we saw a number of decisions being made or being considered at the state level around what we could and couldn’t do to host events in terms of the size of gatherings. It started to become clear that we may not be able to use all of the sites we’d intended, and we might have to have some alternatives.

“[NCAA vice president for men’s basketball] Danny Gavitt and his men’s and women’s teams did a really great job trying to identify alternative venues around the country where we could, if we needed to, move to different places. At that point, Wednesday, it still looked like [the coronavirus outbreak] was in isolated areas like Seattle, places in California and maybe Ohio and New York emerging as epicenters. We had rounds in a number of those places, but we were hopeful at that point that we could still manage the events and protect the kids and a small number of family members and the coaches.”

  • “One of the big data points that changed was that we were really hopeful that we could access testing enough so that we could test our student-athletes and coaches and make sure that we were good there. The communication started to come back that that may not be possible, that the testing protocols that were available were a little bit worse than we’d anticipated. The concerns about an NBA player being infected become another important data point. It wasn’t the trigger point, but it was an important data point.”

How concerning was the Rudy Gobert situation? [The Utah Jazz center was the first NBA player to test positive for COVID-19, which prompted the NBA to suspend its season.]

“It was, like, an exclamation point. It was like, ‘Yeah, this is real.'”

How much concern was there Thursday morning that the NCAA might have to cancel the basketball tournaments?

“We had a few conversations [Wednesday] night, but by the time we got to work on Thursday morning, we realized that the possibility of an outbreak occurring among any one of our teams or staffs [was real]. The other thing going on that morning was campus closures, and we didn’t know the sites where the women’s games were going to be played. We thought we might be having a women’s event at a campus that was in the midst of being closed down. That’s obviously not going to work, either.

“By the middle of the morning Thursday, we were starting to realize that we may not well be able to do this as we’d envisioned just 18 hours earlier. We had Dr. Hainline talking to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], and one of the doctors heavily involved in the testing process is on our [COVID-19] panel. They came back and said that we can’t get access to the testing we want and the timeline that we need.”

Did the NCAA consider using a smaller tournament format at one site?

“Danny started thinking about a shrunk-down tournament, where we could go to a single site. If we couldn’t use all of our sites or use our alternative sites, you have two options: You shrink the tournament down and shorten up the timeline and try to get ahead of the spread, instead of behind it. The other option is you do the opposite: You delay everything and try to push it behind the growth curve of the virus.

“The problems with doing a postponement became pretty self-evident. One, the projections coming out of the medical community increasingly became that the virus was going to grow, and the best projections that our medical teams have seen is that May and June will be epicenter time, not diminished time, as this gets spread around the country. The other thing is once you move into the spring, you’ve got a large number of schools that are not even holding classes, let alone having practices and having people on their campuses. We know that we would have graduation of seniors, and some seniors want to go professional. We would have seeded teams that wouldn’t have even been available to play. Danny’s committee would have made decisions based on who’s playing today, and that wouldn’t have been who was playing when the tournament started.

“After a lot of assessment, Dan and his team came back and said postponement doesn’t make sense. Then it became, ‘Can we play a shorter version? Can we do a Sweet 16? Can we squeeze it all into this first week and get it all done in the same place? All go to Atlanta and change the venues?'”

Why couldn’t a one-weekend, 16-team tournament in Atlanta have worked?

“We thought we would just test everybody. It was 16 teams and not that big of a deal. Can we make it work? And the answer was that we couldn’t make it work, either, under those circumstances. By the time we got through lunch on Thursday, it was becoming increasingly clear that there wasn’t a way to do this, where we could have great confidence that we weren’t going to have a case break out. Once you have a case break out, how you handle that becomes incredibly disruptive to a tournament. We’re dealing with students, obviously, and we’re going to do everything we can to protect them. So we made the very, very difficult decision over the next handful of hours.”

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