Opinion: Shut down college basketball and shut down NCAA tournament

Dan Wolken
USA TODAY

Memo to ACC commissioner John Swofford, who announced Thursday morning that his conference tournament was proceeding without fans in attendance: The college basketball season is over, even if you can’t bring yourself to admit it yet. 

That goes for you, too, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey and Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and Bob Bowlsby of the Big 12 and everyone else in college athletics who is a day late and a dollar short on the reality of what the past 72 hours means for sports. 

It’s time to shut it down. Your conference tournaments, and next week’s NCAA tournament, can’t go on. Pack it in and try again next year. It’ll be OK.

The moment Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday night, everything changed. For those who may have been holding out hope that this pandemic wouldn’t intrude on our daily lives, the NBA’s decision to shut down for awhile was perhaps an even bigger wake-up call than the NCAA’s earlier decision to play the tournament without fans in attendance. 

This was inevitable, though, for the NBA and will be inevitable for college basketball, too. Once a player or coach or game official tests positive, the party’s over. Period. 

In a game where bodies clang into one another and a couple dozen hands touch a basketball, it only takes one case of COVID-19 to paralyze everything. And given the completely insufficient levels of testing in this country, to assume that all the college players and coaches currently at conference tournaments don’t have the virus would be naive, foolish and putting everyone else on the floor in harm’s way. 

Other than a naked cash-grab, there’s no point in this anymore. 

For the next several weeks, as the country grapples with how to get the outbreak under control, sports aren’t gong to matter. The NCAA tournament, which is typically about joy and heartbreak and togetherness, will instead be three weeks of college athletics officials holding their breath that nobody has to go into quarantine. 

On Wednesday night at the Big Ten tournament, Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg fell ill on the bench and had to go back to the locker room. Given the context of what had just happened in the NBA, it was an awful optic. And when the game ended, Nebraska’s players were held in the locker room for a period of time before it was determined that Hoiberg simply had the flu. 

Are we going to put the players on 68 men’s and 64 women’s teams — not to mention ourselves as viewers — through that every time someone coughs or looks sick? 

It’s too bad that the phase of this pandemic we’re in is inconvenient for playing sports. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s a pretty minor sacrifice to send everyone home now and declare the season over.

Does the NCAA really want to be the organization telling amateur, unpaid athletes to play basketball and potentially expose each other to COVID-19 while the pros are sitting at home? It would be the worst possible look for college sports, and what we’re almost certainly going to find over the next 24 hours is a growing unease among coaches and players about putting themselves in that position. 

Obviously, college sports is different from the NBA in that it’s more difficult, if not impossible, to put the season on pause and come back later in the year to try and play a postseason. But that can’t be the determining factor in how to proceed. 

We all want to see games and the tournament be played, but the circumstances are too severe right now to make that a big priority. From Charles Barkley to Jay Bilas to Jay Williams to Stephen A. Smith, commentators with very significant voices had finally come around to that inevitability on Thursday morning. 

If the men and women in charge of these conference tournaments don’t do the same, they’re begging for problems and merely hoping — without a lot of evidence backing them, by the way — that everything works out fine. 

That’s not what these times call for. 

Cancel the games. End the season. A lot of difficult decisions have had to be made over the past few days, but as reality sets in, this should be an easy one.