When the NCAA canceled 2020’s installment of March Madness, COVID-19 wasn’t nearly as widespread in the United States as it is now. On March 12, the day of the tournament’s cancellation, there were 405 new cases in the country. There have been more than 200,000 new cases per day for the last few days, and yet, both the women’s and men’s college basketball seasons are in full swing.
With contract tracing and daily testing protocols in place, the NCAA is better equipped now to stage a season in the time of COVID-19, but these measures reduce the spread of the disease at best — they can’t prevent it. By trying to play at a much larger scale than it was in March, the NCAA has demonstrated, now more than ever, that it prioritizes financial incentives over the well-being of its student-athletes.
The NCAA was right to cancel March Madness 2020 when it did. The NBA had indefinitely suspended its season just a day before, and increasing public concern about the pandemic made it obviously unwise to continue with the tournament. Why, then, with the country in a much worse position with regards to COVID-19, has college basketball resumed now?
The answer is the revenue. During the 2016-2017 season, the March Madness tournament accounted for roughly $1 billion, or about 75%, of the NCAA’s yearly revenue. Three years later, the tournament brought in $1 billion in advertising revenue. No college basketball season this year means another year of no tournaments or the revenue that they bring, and the resulting math is probably pretty easy for NCAA executives.
Defenders of the NCAA’s right to resume play may refer to the fact that other organizations, such as the NFL and the NBA, have continued with their seasons. To this, I would ask, if the NFL and the NBA jumped off a cliff, would you jump, too? On a serious note, though, while there are certainly many risks associated with what the NFL has been doing, the nature of basketball — an indoor sport with constant close contact — seemingly makes it an even more dangerous environment for the transmission and spread of COVID-19.
And the NBA orchestrated an incredibly well-operated quarantine and bubble system that led to zero positive test results inside the bubble. The NCAA doesn’t have the resources to replicate such a model, and with the size of college basketball, it wouldn’t make sense logistically. The NBA only brought 22 teams into its bubble, whereas there are 357 NCAA Division I men’s basketball programs, and no bubble is big enough to safely incorporate all the players and staff members on those teams — a bubble that large is almost certain to burst.
On the topic of positive test results, there have been many in this young college basketball season. To no surprise to anyone living through this pandemic, traveling across the country in large groups to participate in a full-contact sport with no masks is not a great way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Games are being postponed or canceled on an almost daily basis as programs continue to find positive test results among their players and staff.
Most recently, University of Houston men’s basketball coach Kelvin Sampson revealed that every player on his roster has tested positive for COVID-19. Earlier this month, Gonzaga, the No. 1 men’s basketball team in the nation, postponed its matchup against Baylor, the No. 2 team, after two positive tests forced the Bulldogs to shut down all team activities for nearly two weeks.
One of the college basketball season’s premier nonconference events, the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, in which 14 teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference play 14 teams from the Big Ten Conference, was not immune to COVID-19 complications as three games had to be postponed due to positive test results.
As I write this, I can scroll down to the bottom of my sports app and see that seven games have been canceled or postponed today. Each of these cancellations is not just a source of disappointment for fans eager to watch college hoops. Rather, each represents a student or staff member sick with a virus that has killed 1.71 million people around the world as of December 22. Every game canceled is a bubble burst and a nervous family forced to decide between not seeing their child over the holidays and putting themselves at risk to contract COVID-19.
It can be easy to become fatigued with the constant news of COVID-19 and the inconveniences it has brought into our lives throughout the last nine months. The NCAA has inarguably had to deal with its fair share of inconvenience — and as much as $1 billion lost. But inconveniences such as no live sports on TV or no ad revenue are not devastating losses in the way that the death of a family member is. If we want to stop the spread of COVID-19 and return to normalcy, where we can watch March Madness with friends and family, it’s time for the NCAA to do what it should have done from the start: cancel the rest of the college basketball season.