NCAA’s Emmert: March Madness was the Titanic and there was no way to avoid that coronavirus iceberg
Mark Emmert is sitting in the NCAA offices in Indianapolis, and he’s laughing. He’s laughing loudly, and what this sounds like, what it feels like, is a release. It feels like weeks of tension and anxiety and scrutiny — like weeks of misery — coming out in barking laughter as he takes aim at himself, at me, at critics, at everyone and every damn thing as it relates to COVID-19 shutting down the 2020 NCAA basketball tournaments.
Because at one point in our 15-minute conversation, after listening to him go through the process that started with the coronavirus washing onto our shores in late January and ended with the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA tournament on March 12 — when it became obvious that the NCAA’s president and board of governors didn’t know everything they needed to know before shutting down March Madness — I said these words to him:
You mean, you didn’t have all the answers before canceling the NCAA tournament?
Here’s where Emmert starts laughing. Is it a bitter laugh? No, don’t think so. He knows what I was getting at.
“No,” he says, after the laughing subsides, and to be clear, he wasn’t laughing alone. “I know some people think we should handle it perfectly, consult with everybody, communicate with everybody, know everything that could happen — but, no. I’m shocked to tell you, we don’t have all the answers.”
To some, this is unacceptable. Listen, people are mad, and they — we — are aiming our anger at whatever target we can find. The NCAA feels like a safe target, doesn’t it? Google my name and “NCAA” and “mistake.” See how safe that target is.
There will be no March Madness this spring.
People are mad, and they want more answers than they’ve been getting from Emmert about the decision to cancel one of the best events on the annual sports calendar — without postponing it first, as the NBA and Major League Baseball and other sports leagues and events have done with games.
This whole thing has been unfolding like a movie, like something from the sick mind of Stephen King — whatever you do, don’t read or watch “The Stand” right now — and people want answers from Mark Emmert. Many of them, many of you, have asked me to get them. And since we’re talking movies, this is what they expect from my line of questioning:
Here we go.
Postponement never had a chance
We talk about transparency, don’t we? We do. And this is me being transparent: From the beginning, I understood the NCAA’s decisions related to the coronavirus. The way it first announced hours before the start of the Big Ten tournament that the NCAA tournaments would continue, but without fans. The way it then announced 24 hours later that the whole thing was off, including spring sports as well.
The way it looked clumsy, awkward, uncoordinated.
You realize how big the NCAA is and how it works, do you not? There are more than 350 schools in Division I, more than 30 conference tournaments — double those numbers, to account for men and women — and this saga was moving too fast. March Madness is the biggest, most beautiful thing, but in this case it was the Titanic and there was no way to avoid that iceberg. And no way to crash gracefully.
I’m telling Emmert this, in so many words, before we start talking. Friendly or otherwise, interview subjects will always know where I stand before the first question comes. My knives, for this interview, were not out. But there are legitimate questions to ask, and I asked them. So why am I going on and on here? Let’s get to Emmert, who grabbed my first question — Why cancel? Why not postpone? — and took off.
“First of all,” is how he starts, “nobody wants to conduct the tournament more than we do. The decision to cancel the tournament was one of the hardest decisions I and the Board of Governors have ever made. We would have loved to postpone it. We looked at postponing it, and also looked at whether we could move it up, shorten the tournament to a Sweet 16 to accelerate and get in front of the spread of the coronavirus, but we wound up having to conclude we couldn’t do either one.”
My next question was … oh, sorry. Emmert’s not done talking. And he’ll continue for close to five minutes, a stream of consciousness and backstory.
“Issues with postponing the tournament are complicated,” he’s saying. “First and foremost, people have to recognize that all of the decisions being made were based on the best medical advice available at the time, and all of the data that has come out since then has reinforced that view further.”
I wasn’t interrupting Emmert then, but I’ll do it here to translate: “We got it right.” And he wasn’t gloating, got me? He was merely saying: This COVID-19 thing has spread as badly as everyone had feared, if not worse, and there was never going to be a way to play the 2020 NCAA tournament. Not ever. Those are my words. Here comes more of his:
“We had established weeks earlier a COVID-19 advisory panel of medical experts and an operations security expert,” Emmert’s saying. “We were in constant contact with the CDC, national and state and local health officials. When we reached our conclusion on Wednesday (March 11) that we could do the (NCAA) tournament without fans, we had a very high level of confidence that we could control the environment sufficiently to protect the student-athletes and coaches and family members allowed to participate.
“Within 12 hours,” he’s continuing, “we saw a number of states and municipalities that we were going to be playing in close down and restrict events, Ohio being the most obvious one. We saw cases coming out that demonstrated the spread of disease at higher rate. Our COVID-19 advisory panel said: ‘We have real concerns today about the ability to manage this in all these different venues.’”
He’s not done. But the president of the NCAA is telling me that he and the board of governors didn’t come close to postponing this thing. They barely even looked at that.
And I’m telling you: You will understand, after you hear more.
Especially after the president of the NCAA goes on the offensive.
Emmert fights back
“We’re talking about all of our winter sports, and not just men’s basketball,” Emmert is saying. “For the men’s tournament we had 14 sites, so when we looked at those, our ability to control the environment was being called into question by the advisory committee. Of course we’d had the NBA case at that time too.”
Emmert’s talking about the positive coronavirus tests of Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz — Patient Zero, as he will be forever known — and soon his teammate, Donovan Mitchell. But he’s not passing the buck. Just explaining the timeline.
“We also had conference tournaments canceling events, so it reached a point where we needed to change course (from playing the 68-team tournament in front of no fans). That’s when we started looking at: Could we shorten it down to 16 (teams) and do it in short order? Or could we postpone it?”
Could we postpone it?
Here we go. Took me almost 1,200 words to get here — everyone’s a critic — but here comes the meat of the conversation.
“We looked at postponing it,” Emmert’s saying, “but the biggest problem was, we were getting word that many campuses were shutting down schools themselves: moving online, off-campus. When you look at postponing it you also have — just the men’s tournament — young men going to graduate, many who want to get ready for the (2020) NBA draft. Many wouldn’t be around for a tournament in May, so we’d be seeding a tournament with teams that won’t exist at the time you host the tournament.
“But more importantly, most importantly, all of the medical projections at that time — and it has only increased since then — showed the pandemic increasing in coming days and months, not decreasing. In many ways we would be leaning into the peak of the epidemic by moving (the tournament) out.”
Now Emmert is ready to finish his filibuster.
“For all of those reasons — schools closing, municipalities closing locations, the spread predicted to grow and not shrink, complete teams not available at the time of the (postponed) games — all of that says that postponement is impossible.”
The NCAA never even looked at what venues might be available in May. Finally he’s done, and … oh. Sorry: No, he isn’t. Emmert has been defending the NCAA. Now he’s about to go on the offensive.
“For those who say we do everything for money,” Emmert says and pauses, as if he’s addressing his critics, which I suppose he’s about to do, “this is the most painful thing we’ve ever done financially. We will lose a significant portion of our revenue. We’re working our way through that right now, as you might expect … but there’s no way to go through this year and into next year without a very significant financial interruption.
“As you’re aware,” Emmert’s telling me, and now you, “though all of your readers might not be: We’re predominantly a pass-through. The vast majority of the revenue to the NCAA goes right to membership. This isn’t hurting just the office in Indianapolis, but all of our schools.”
Now I’m asking a question: What does that mean, “a very significant financial interruption?” Are you suggesting, I’m asking the president of the NCAA, that schools might not be able to afford to play all of their games in the coming years, or use all of their allowable scholarships in certain sports? Can you give me a concrete example of what you just said?
“No concrete examples,” Emmert said, to which I’m blurting that question:
You didn’t have all the answers before canceling the NCAA tournament?
Emmert’s laughing now, and it goes on for a little while, and thank goodness for that. I can use the break.
This is information he’s been living with for almost a week, but for an outsider it’s a lot to digest in one conversation. From the captain’s chair, Mark Emmert has just given a first-person account of the 2020 NCAA basketball tournament — the ‘ship, cool kids call a championship — heading for that damn COVID-19 iceberg.
And this ‘ship never had a chance.
Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at @GreggDoyelStar or at www.facebook.com/gregg.doyel.