As the end of an unusual basketball season moves forward with its annual bracket tournament, it’s time to take a look at why this year will be more challenging than ever before.
March 2020 was a rough time for basketball fans, as March Madness was canceled due to concerns over COVID-19. Despite feeling disappointed and upset, fans understood the dangers the virus posed for players, coaches and the audience. Bringing 68 teams into a single tournament at the beginning of a pandemic was just not possible.
In light of a year that has seen so many sports leagues adapt to COVID-19, college basketball fans are relying on the biggest draw of the season to help bring back a sense of normalcy to their beloved sport.
The NBA and NFL have both conducted their playoffs according to COVID-19 regulations, often choosing to get creative in order to keep players safe and fans happy. Back in August, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver spearheaded a heroic effort to create a Disney World “bubble.” The bubble consisted of 22 teams and players were not permitted to leave the Orlando campus, which allowed the playoffs to continue in an unprecedented fashion.
The NFL chose to have a normal season; they did not confine their players to a “bubble” or take similarly dramatic action, and many players tested positive for COVID-19 as a result. Star players had to miss out on some of the biggest games of the season. Sometimes even coaches had to sit out of games, like Kevin Stefanski, who was absent for a crucial playoff game. Luckily the team still won, otherwise, the playoffs would have been tainted with numerous “what ifs.”
The NBA and NFL managed to complete their seasons but faced harsh challenges along the way, including mental health hardships, which many NBA players addressed after the season ended. Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George opened up to fans about how he underestimated how much the season would affect his mental and physical health.
The NCAA announced its plan for the tournament this March, which parallels the NBA “bubble” in many ways. The NCAA has confined all 64 teams to the city of Indianapolis, Indiana. The teams are separated into multiple hotels, and the games are taking place in various arenas throughout the area. If conducted properly, the NCAA should be able to provide a relatively safe environment for its players and coaches, but it will be impossible for the tournament to compare to the security that the NBA’s “bubble” provided its players.
In addition, the NCAA has ensured limited fan attendance during each round, as well as plans to have mass COVID-19 testing taking place throughout the tournament for everyone involved.
Health aside, the logistics of scheduling pose an even bigger threat to the success of the tournament as a whole. In the ACC tournament, both UVA and Duke were knocked out for positive COVID-19 tests. What would happen to a team with prospects of a national championship win if one of their players were to test positive? The uphill battle the NCAA faces stretches across many aspects of a sporting event, and in order to fulfill the experience of March Madness, something will have to be sacrificed.
The players’ mental health is one of these sacrifices. Playing basketball in front of significantly smaller crowds while being restricted from seeing family or friends for several weeks seems daunting. On top of everything, there is still the risk of contracting COVID-19, which is a scary possibility for these players to contend with as they fight to win some of the most important games of their lives.
If a star player tests positive for COVID-19, their team could remain in the tournament, as long as they have five healthy players. One individual can largely affect how their team ranks, especially this late in the season, so if that individual becomes sick, the team could flail and underperform. However, it could be much more complicated than that. VCU, for example, had to drop out of the tournament for multiple positive tests. It’s still unclear whether they even had five healthy players, but regardless, the decision was made for them and Oregon proceeded onto the second round with a win. Fans and players alike might feel haunted by the different ways the tournament could have panned out, not to mention that if this were to happen in one of the final rounds, it would cause a major uproar in the sports world.
Furthermore, players will be forced to sacrifice their own physical health. Patriots quarterback Cam Newton tested positive for COVID-19 early in the season; when he returned, his performance was notably worse, which led people to speculate about the effects of COVID-19 on athletes. While there is limited data available regarding these long-term effects, it is clear that every athlete is affected differently. That said, it is important that every potential opportunity for exposure is eliminated.
Despite all of this, postponement or cancellation of the tournament does not necessarily have to be an option. Other sports leagues have been able to safely conduct tournaments and games while keeping their players safe. The Professional Golfers’ Association Tour recently held its marquee tournament, the Players Championship, while allowing fans back at about 20% capacity while wearing masks and socially distancing. Golf happens to be outside and in a safer environment, but it shows that the right safety precautions can go a long way in a return to normalcy.
In March 2020, the world was only beginning to grasp how to monitor and contain the virus. While the United States has done an objectively poor job in its management, the future is looking bright, as President Biden has stated that 100 million vaccinations will be administered to Americans by the end of March.
Despite the mental toll on players and the health risks for everyone involved, we are lucky to be at a stage in the pandemic where major sports events can proceed in the safest way possible, empowering players to have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and continuing a national sports tradition.