Even before the official announcement that the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament was canceled, you could tell in a brief walk around downtown Nashville that the heart of the events — the fans — had stopped pumping. The decision not to play had been the subject of rumors throughout Thursday morning.
The final shutdown came as no surprise, unprecedented as the step was. The NBA decision to suspend play may have been the first domino. Perhaps it was the Ivy League’s decision to cancel all spring athletics, basketball tournaments and everything else.
You and I, clicking away through the various options available that feature college sports, may pay scant attention to a Yale-Dartmouth lacrosse match. Rest assured, however, that many of the college presidents around the country, who have an academic mission as well as an athletic one, do pay attention to the Ivy League — and the NBA, too.
So sitting in Bridgestone Arena, looking up at thousands of empty seats, the impression wasn’t so much of a vast, hollow void, but of a gap, a wide valley but one with clearly distinct sides, sheer walls of uncertainty so steep that you couldn’t discern what was at the top, answers or more uncertainty.
If you looked with your heart in one direction, you could see a young man like Beetle Bolden. When he woke up on Thursday morning, he was a college basketball player. A few hours later, he wasn’t, his career ended not by an opponent’s buzzer-beating basket but by a microscopic virus and the decision-makers trying to find the best way to deal with it. Bolden is young. He has a rich, promising life ahead. But for years, through high school and back before that, he had defined himself, to an important degree, by basketball.
Eventually, every player’s career ends. But not every player’s career vanishes.
Not until later on Thursday afternoon did we learn that Bolden was far from alone. College baseball is over for 2020. So is softball, and track, and gymnastics. Surely some accommodation will be made for spring-sport seniors to be granted an immediate year of eligibility. But for Bolden, or Shea Mahoney, or dozens of others. Those athletes must be in a state of shock.
Greg Sankey certainly seemed to be in a similar state on Thursday. Faced with a choice to have the SEC stand alone — a choice that didn’t actually exist at all after the NCAA flipped the giant “off” switch in everything on Thursday afternoon — or go along with the tide of the other pro and college leagues, the latter was inevitable. He sensed the human cost, his composure wavering as he recalled the joy of a Georgia basketball player who got to compete — and win — in the tornado-stricken 2008 SEC Tournament.
“I’ve not had a situation that has been as difficult and emotional as this one,” Sankey said. “No one in the conference has taken this decision lightly.”
Later, he also seemed taken aback that the championship events that are nearly three months away were eliminated by the NCAA, apparently based largely on decisions by the ACC and the Big Ten. There was a general consensus, even as the media was leaving Bridgestone Arena, that there would be more information gathered and that March 30 would be the reckoning date for such momentous decisions.
There may be some options for continued play. The SEC has not indicated whether they will pursue those. A great many details would have to be worked out. It would be premature in the extreme to speculate there would be SEC baseball in Hoover or softball in Tuscaloosa.
I do recognize that there is another wall to the valley. Without launching into either epidemiology or politics, there does seem to be an urgency about preventing the spread of this virus and protecting the most vulnerable. Sports may be an unavoidable three-month casualty in a battle to save lives. That matters.
As bitter as this decision is for a young athlete he or she have bright futures ahead. A 74-year-old grandmother who catches coronavirus that didn’t have to might have no options.
This has become an increasingly divided nation, one side constantly angry at the other on many issues. Still, on Thursday, one could look on either side and see row after row of empty seats and, no matter what you thought of their emptiness, you could see heartbreak in every one.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or via Twitter @cecilhurt