What exactly are we doing here?
I know, that’s the question many of us have been asking since sports, and especially college and youth sports, returned last fall, in defiance of common sense and a seemingly basic understanding of how viruses spread. Once college football, uh, happened (I refuse to say “succeeded” while we have players with lingering heart damage and entire teams and their coaches taken out by COVID-19), college basketball seemed inevitable. And once it was revealed that not having the NCAA men’s tournament in 2020 cost the NCAA something in the neighborhood of $600 million... well, we all knew that wasn’t going to happen again.
So here we are, two weeks before the men’s NCAA Tourney gets underway in Indianapolis and three weeks before the women begin tournament play in Texas. If the NCAA and all the conferences are hell-bent on getting that sweet Big Dance money, now seems like a great time to shut everything down for ten days and give the players time to properly quarantine before they all head to Indianapolis, where every single men’s tournament game will be played.
Instead, we’re going to have conference tournaments.
Ok … why?
The truth is, when it comes right down to it, conference tournaments have never really been necessary. And while everyone loves a Cinderella team going on a late-season run and grabbing an automatic bid, that process actually works to keep smaller and mid-major teams out of the dance, though this year the NCAA is letting conferences decide if they give the automatic bid to the conference or regular-season champ. But let’s think about a regular year. Let’s say you play for a team in a “lesser” conference. You’ve been leading in the standings all year, but you blow it in the tournament and the team that’s been sitting in 4th place all year wins it all. Unless you have someone advocating for you on the selection committee, there’s a chance no one outside of that single automatic bid is going dancing. Is the selection committee really going to take a team from the Atlantic Sun Conference over a Big Ten or PAC-12 team on the bubble? Maybe next year.
“But, wait!” you say. What about all that money conferences will lose if they cancel their tournaments? The shocking truth is that conference tournaments don’t bring in as much as you might think. For example, the Big Ten makes 80-90 percent of its revenue from a package deal for its tv rights, which it sold to ESPN and Fox Sports for $2.64 billion in 2017, which includes the regular season, as well as the conference tourney and championship games, in basketball and football. The rest of the money comes from various sources: the NCAA tourney, football ticket revenue, championship events, etc. The conference tournament doesn’t even bring in enough money to justify being reported upon separately, but estimates put the revenue in the low seven figures. In the world of college sports, that’s chump change.
Then there’s the fact that the Big Ten moved the conference tourney from Chicago to Indianapolis, and while they gave a variety of “safety” factors as reasons, it’s hard to believe that it didn’t have something to do with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s strict COVID rules, something that has been laxer in Indianapolis since the pandemic began. The Bulls are still not allowing fans at the United Center for home games, while the Pacers have admitted a number of fans right from the start.
Traveling through Indianapolis last fall, I was appalled by the lack of masks and indoor gatherings being allowed seemingly everywhere I turned. This is where I mention that Cook County’s COVID positivity rate is a hard-fought 3.3 percent, while Marion County, where Indianapolis is located, is at 4.75 percent. It’s hard to make the argument that things are safer in Indy than in Chicago.
And it’s not just the Big Ten that will be holding its conference tournament in a less-than-ideal location. In Guilford County, North Carolina (home of Greensboro) where the ACC Conference tourney will take place, the positivity rate is 7.3 percent. In Kansas City, where the Big 12 will play their tournament, the positivity rate is 4.2 percent, with no statewide mask mandate. Davidson County will host the SEC conference tourney in Nashville, and boasts a whopping 6.3 percent positivity rate.
The women’s tournament will take place entirely in Texas, the state with no mask mandate and a governor who is bound and determined to wish COVID away. Much of it will be played in San Antonio which currently sports a robust positivity rate of 5.6 percent.
Of course, the ACC, Big East, Big 12, SEC, and NCAA are all planning on allowing varying levels of fans into stadiums to watch their tournament games, putting players, coaches, and staff at increased risk. The Big Ten remains on the fence, but it’s easy to imagine where they’ll come down eventually.
And it’s not like we haven’t seen multiple teams knocked out of play this year by COVID already. In the Big Ten, Nebraska, Michigan, Michigan State, and Penn State have already suffered COVID shutdowns. Back in December, Houston’s Kelvin Sampson reported that his entire team had contracted the virus. At Louisville, 90 percent of the team came down with COVID.
Over on the women’s side, Duke opted out of the season back in December due to COVID issues and Virginia peace’d out in January. Meanwhile, at Baylor, coach Kim Mulkey, who suffered from COVID herself, called out the NCAA for forcing the season to happen in the first place, saying, “The season will continue on. It’s called the almighty dollar. The NCAA has to have the almighty dollar from the men’s tournament. The almighty dollar is more important than the health and welfare of me, the players or anybody else.”
Someone had to say it.
In a year when so many things have been rendered superfluous and indulgent, the conference tournaments rank right near the top. They’re completely unnecessary, and I know that because the Big Ten didn’t have a one until 1998. The Big 12 had their first post-season tournament in 1997. It’s wholly possible to select 64 teams (plus play-in games) without relying on the final weekend and automatic bids, and it’s what should happen this year.
Instead, the NCAA is going to allow men’s and women’s players from all over the country, many from areas with high positivity rates and no real masking requirements, to descend on central Indiana and Texas at the same time, setting up super-spreader events that could rival what we saw in Sturges last summer, and we’re not even taking into account all those who will travel to watch the games. Sure, the NCAA and conference teams like to tell us about their strict masking and social distancing protocols, but we’ve already seen those fail not only a veritable cornucopia of college programs, but also full-grown adults in pro leagues. The NCAA is essentially relying on 2,000 teenagers to get this right.
Including both the Big Ten and NCAA Men’s Tournament, Indiana is primed to see 169 basketball games in just over a month. Something that I, an Indiana University alum, would find to be great fun, were so much not at stake.
Just days ago, the CDC urged the public to remain vigilant as vaccinations ramp up, with director Dr. Rochelle Walensky saying she hopes people will continue to “do the right thing,” in distancing and wearing masks. It’s hard to imagine the CDC approving of two mass gatherings in different spots in the country before everyone involved disperses back to where they came from. Some of the teams playing in the men’s NCAA tourney will hail from Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott just revoked the mask mandate and opened up the state. God knows what will happen after three more weeks of no masks in Texas, just in time for the women’s teams to arrive.
This should go great.
The bottom line is this: No matter what safety protocols the conferences put in place, there are going to be asymptomatic people with COVID traveling to Indianapolis for the Big Dance. And since everyone is hell-bent on going ahead with the NCAA tournament, the responsible thing to do is to cancel the conference tournaments. Keep the players in quarantine for 10 days. Give them the best chance possible of heading to Indianapolis completely healthy. Yes, people will still likely get sick and carry the virus back to their home bubbles, but the conferences can at least attempt to mitigate the damage the NCAA tourney is going to inflict.
Yes, it will mean forgoing money the conferences would love to have. Yes, it puts a damper on the final weekend of the regular season. Yes, people will be angry and upset.
But it’s the right thing to do.